VA's CIO gets budget authority

Shift follows problems with some high-profile systems

Faced with a list of information technology failures, the Department of Veterans Affairs has decided to centralize control of technology spending in the hands of the chief information officer.

This action comes as Congress pushes legislation to mandate that the VA's CIO control all IT spending after a series of IT failures, which may have wasted billions of taxpayer dollars in the past 10 years. The legislation is intended to fix what many lawmakers say is out-of-control spending at the VA.

"This lack of accountability in VA IT spending must stop," said Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee. "The structure in place lacks the authority and accountability to provide better service to veterans."

As Congress began pressuring the VA to control its budget, the department paid Gartner, an independent consulting firm, $5 million to devise a plan to help realign IT spending. Until now, spending was highly decentralized nationwide, and CIO Robert McFarland had control of only $50 million of the agency's $1.6 billion IT budget for fiscal 2005.

In a report outlining how to tighten the budget belt, Gartner recommended several ways to reorganize the VA's IT shop. Top VA officials decided to adopt one of their recommendations, a centralized model that gives individual VA offices the authority to develop software but keeps control of the IT money in McFarland's shop.

Dr. Jonathan Perlin, undersecretary of health affairs and leader of the VA's medical system and electronic health records efforts, said he opposed some aspects of the plan.

He said it is important to keep IT control at the medical centers because many tools, such as radiology workstations and cardiac care monitors, are "an integral part of health care delivery."

"They cannot be separated from the health care environment nor can they be adequately supported from a centralized function, regardless of who may run it," Perlin said in a memo about the IT reorganization.

At a Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing Oct. 20, Gordon Mansfield, the VA's deputy secretary, said the new plan would make the department's IT operations more efficient.

"Despite having overall responsibility for ensuring the success of VA's IT operations, the CIO had no direct management control or organizational authority over the great majority of VA's IT resources," Mansfield said in a statement to the committee. "He can only provide policy guidance, budgetary review via indirect supervision."

Although the department has been embroiled in controversy over the IT budget, completely reshuffling operations and implementing tighter controls could take as long as 18 months to complete, McFarland said.

Buyer's VA spotlight

Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), left, recently said he is losing patience with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Since he became a member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, he said, the VA has been struggling without success to handle the department's information technology budget. Buyer said the VA has made some progress toward IT modernization, but he cited several wasteful projects that total more than $1 billion, including:

  • $600 million for a decade of VETSNET, an automated compensation and pension claims-processing system that the VA still has not implemented.
  • $342 million for CoreFLS, a failed financial management system at the VA's hospital in Bay Pines, Fla.
  • $300 million for HR Links, a failed automated personnel system.
  • $485 million annually to maintain the Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture, the VA's 25-year-old medical information system.

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