HHS pushes forward with IT consolidation

The Department of Health and Human Services is consolidating systems and data storage as it standardizes many of the functions that are common to all agencies within the sprawling department, HHS’ chief information officer said yesterday.

Asset-tracking, financial, e-mail and grant systems are some of the applications that HHS is standardizing and consolidating, CIO Charles Havekost said at a luncheon sponsored by the Industry Advisory Council in Washington, D.C.

Although he said he prefers commercial software, Havekost added that the lack of such software for a particular function wouldn’t halt the push for standardization. In the case of recipients’ appeals of Medicare payment decisions, he said different systems had sprung up at each level of an escalating appeals process.

“We’re going to do one system across the department,” said Havekost, who also is a deputy assistant secretary at HHS.

Additionally, he advocated sharing more systems among Cabinet-level departments and other agencies. The HHS CIO’s office, working with a contractor, built a system to streamline the data-collection approval process. Under the Paperwork Reduction Act, each new collection of information requires approvals within the department and from the Office of Management and Budget.

HHS’ system, which includes a repository of information about data-collection initiatives, allows the department to submit its plans to OMB electronically. Because the interface between the HHS and OMB systems is now established, Havekost said, the system is attractive to other agencies.

“We’ve got four or five other federal agencies that are talking to us” about using the HHS system, he said.

Among major challenges facing the department’s information technology staff is the need to implement the presidential directive calling for agencies to issue smart identification cards to control employee and contractor access to buildings and systems, Havekost said. He said HHS is reviewing all aspects of card issuance and access controls, and called it an area of opportunity for would-be contractors.

He also said he will focus on records management issues, particularly as they relate to continuity of operations in the event of a disaster or a terrorist attack in Washington, D.C.

“I think we’re starting to see a real sea change in the federal government” with respect to contractor-operated data centers, Havekost said.

Although IT employees are reluctant to see data centers hosted outside government buildings, he said, it makes sense to consolidate and use commercial hosting where redundancy and restoration can be more certain. Some HHS systems are still hosted in an office closet, where they are difficult to manage and vulnerable to loss, he said.

Havekost also predicted there will be a lot of effort on health IT.

He said the department’s discretionary IT budget this fiscal year is $2.3 billion. In addition, HHS is handing out about $3 billion in IT grants to states.

But Havekost said HHS would not be buying IT systems for all the medical offices nationwide. Instead, he touted the department’s focus on health IT standards.

Ferris is a freelance writer in Chevy Chase, Md. She can be reached at ferrisn@att.net.

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