VA opens up PAIRS - again

The Department of Veterans Affairs last month changed directions with its procurement strategy for a large agency computer services contract and decided to permit all contractors regardless of size to compete.

The move sparked questions and criticism from the Small Business Administration because the acquisition previously had been restricted to small businesses.

With no explanation for the change the VA opened bidding on its $875 million Procurement for Automated Information Resources Solutions (PAIRS) contract to all vendors. The VA is expected to release a draft request for proposals for PAIRS next month.

But Harvey Kammerer group director for 8(a) company Soza International Ltd. Fairfax Va. said the move is a result of "internal squabbling within VA...and the result is they've lost a certain amount of credibility within the contracting community."

Large companies are taking a wait-and-see attitude. "We're still tracking and following it " said an Electronic Data Systems Corp. spokesman who would not elaborate.

Kammerer believes the latest VA plans call for a compromise with two PAIRS awards being competed on a full and open basis and two going to small businesses.

That compromise would be similar to an appeal SBA filed with the VA's associate deputy assistant secretary for acquisition. SBA asked the VA to reserve some part of PAIRS for small businesses but no ruling has been issued yet. If SBA's appeal is denied it can seek relief from VA Secretary Jesse Brown's office which will have the final decision.

PAIRS which will offer integration services is the complement to the $1.5 billion Procurement of Computer Hardware and Software (PCHS) a recently awarded contract that will supply VA hospitals and medical centers with desktop PCs advanced and portable systems software and peripherals. Both projects support the VA's goal to move to a networked environment in the next five years.

VA program officials originally had planned PAIRS as a full and open contract but changed it to a small-business set-aside late last year after discussions with officials in SBA and the VA's own small-business office. The move prompted integrators large and small to rethink their bidding strategies.

Last month PAIRS officials changed their minds and once again opened the procurement to all competitors. SBA officials had requested that the PAIRS contracting office set at least a portion of the contract aside for small businesses but those suggestions were rebuffed.

The delay in PAIRS may be costly for PCHS Kammerer said because VA officials who buy equipment off PCHS will be left without a designated team to integrate the equipment. Users will end up employing governmentwide contracts to find integrators resulting in a patchwork of networking jobs rather than a few consistent solutions.

The VA will not comment on the status of PAIRS and the reason for the changes. "I can't really discuss that yet because it wouldn't do the debate any good between us and SBA " a VA spokesman said.

Judith Roussel SBA associate administrator for government contracting insists that the small-business community is quite capable of performing the work required by PAIRS. "I think our bottom-line position is that this is not a type of requirement that is so unique that it's not done by small business " she said.

The VA's decision to return to the original full and open procurement strategy is likely to be welcomed by large companies such as Computer Sciences Corp. EDS and Science Applications International Corp. all of which are expected to bid on PAIRS.

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