VA CIOs explore new focus for programs

Newly appointed chief information officers at the Department of Veterans Affairs are looking to change the focus and direction of major automation programs for benefits delivery and health care.

Newell Quinton, CIO at the Veterans Benefits Administration, said his organization has begun to focus on telecommunications services that will allow veterans to more easily access benefits information.

The VBA has traditionally ignored the importance of telecom and focused on developing applications internally, something he intends to change.

"We have been remiss in not moving telecom forward as we looked at ADP systems," Quinton said last week at a conference sponsored by the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association International. "Veterans should be able to avail themselves of services at any point of entry in our system. Without an aggressive telecom structure, that will not occur."

He said the department will issue a request for proposals for a system to integrate the VBA's telecom and data infrastructures "not before April 30." VA procurement personnel are analyzing vendors' comments on a draft RFP issued in February.

"Telecommunications offers the greatest opportunity to have an impact on the veteran community," Quinton said. "A veteran, wherever he or she may be, should be able to access his or her [records] and have a dialogue with us."

At the Veterans Health Administration, CIO David Albinson said he will rethink the organization's approach to opening up its internally developed Decentralized Hospital Computer Program (DHCP) to incorporate commercial products. Albinson said that effort, known as the Hybrid Open Systems Technology (HOST) program, does not address long-term VHA requirements.

DHCP "is getting a little long in the tooth," and the system should be either upgraded, integrated with commercial products or replaced, he believes.

Albinson ruled out HOST as a solution to updating the VA's hospital architecture.

"HOST would allow commercial software to hook into DHCP," he said. "My feeling is that was a rather limited charter and begs the question: What will we do five or 10 years from now?

"Technology is moving so fast, and we have to look ahead at what's going to be next," he added. "We are trying to get ahead of that. Quite frankly, we haven't made any decision on how we will do that."

Albinson and his staff were expected late this month to begin discussions on how to best address the question.

Frank Lalley, the VA's associate deputy assistant secretary for telecommunications, said the department will alter the way it has procured local telecom service for VA medical centers.

VA officials this month released a request for comments on the TeleChoice program, the department's first attempt to buy telecommunications service for the medical centers through a centralized procurement.

Lalley said the department will buy switches, peripherals, integration services, site-preparation services and cabling through one or more contracts available to all VA medical centers.

The equipment and services would be procured through purchase orders as opposed to multiple-year contracts tying users into iron-clad deals with vendors.

"In the past, we bought telephone systems at local medical centers one by one," Lalley said. "The complexity of contracting has caused us a great deal of headaches in the past. We are trying to take the bureaucracy of contracting out of the process."

He added that he has been conferring with officials at the General Services Administration to determine whether services offered there could meet the VA's needs.

Lalley said he hoped to award TeleChoice by the end of this year.

"The sooner we can get it in our hands, the sooner we can get away from the long, tedious process we have on our hands now," he said.


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