VA forms office to improve IT management

Officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs late last month created a top-level office devoted to managing information technology across the department, a move that should help the agency squeeze greater efficiency and better service out of its sprawling network of medical centers and benefits offices.

Congressional overseers of the VA said the department needs the new office because VA agencies, including the Veterans Health Administration and the Veterans Benefits Administration, have stovepiped systems that cannot easily share data with one another. As a result, the department does not operate as efficiently as it could, which is a problem that could affect the quality of health care to veterans and their families, according to observers.

Moreover, critics say the VA has not devoted as much attention to IT management as it should and cited as an example the triple role of Mark Catlett, the VA's assistant secretary for management, who also holds the chief information officer and chief financial officer positions.

"I think it is [a good idea]" to form the IT management office, said Delores Moorehead, special assistant for information management and technology at the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs. "Mark Catlett really was wearing three different hats, and each one of those was a major function."

With the creation of the new office, called the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Information and Technology, Catlett should be freed of his CIO role, Moorehead said. VA Secretary Togo West has appointed Harold Gracey Jr., the VA's chief of staff, to serve as acting assistant secretary for the new office until a permanent one is appointed.

"Our mission in this new office will be to help the department use information technology in providing the best service possible to our nation's veterans and their families," Gracey said in a statement. "The challenge is to keep our focus on veterans, not technology."

Moorehead agreed that the new office will allow the VA to focus on improving service to veterans because easier access to information will mean quicker service to veterans. For example, a VHA hospital should be able to tap information at VBA quickly to determine if a veteran is eligible for certain medical benefits.

Lewis Lorton, executive director of the Healthcare Open Systems and Trials consortium, an organization that advocates improving health care through IT, said the VA has "got to do it. VA is such a huge organization, and it's fragmented sort of like a loosely controlled [health maintenance organization]." Lorton said the inability to access information quickly and easily can slow down the delivery of health care and can lessen the quality of that care.

The VA's heightened focus on IT could help set IT precedents for the health care industry to follow, Lorton added. "The industry needs the government to lead," he said. "The industry is chaotic right now because there are no big bears out there leading the industry."

The VA serves 27 million veterans through more than 700 medical centers, clinics and treatment centers across the nation.

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