VA IT shop under scrutiny

Rep. Steve Buyer, chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee said today he intends to introduce legislation to tighten controls over how the Department of Veterans Affairs spends its $1.6 billion information technology budget.

At a hearing on the role of the VA's chief information officer, Buyer said he intended to introduce legislation to give the CIO authority over resources, budget and personnel.

“The lack of accountability in IT spending must stop,” Buyer said.

Buyer said he hopes other agencies would use the legislation, still in draft form, to better manage their IT spending.

The hearing is the first step toward overhauling the VA’s IT shop and centralizing it in the CIO’s office. The outcome will affect all parts of the VA’s IT budget, including HealtheVet, the department’s electronic health record system, which is a model for a nationwide program.

Robert McFarland, the VA’s CIO, controls most of the IT budget for one of the largest civilian agencies. The consolidation started two years ago.

A Gartner study makes five recommendations for reorganizing the IT operation and tightening controls on technology spending that reaches 162 VA hospitals and facilities nationwide.

“The department’s business is the health and well-being of our nation’s veterans,” said Gordon Mansfield, the VA’s deputy secretary, in a statement at the session. “To ensure mission success, it is imperative that we employ all means at our disposal, including [IT], in the most effective way possible.”

The VA has come under criticism for its IT problems. Last year, it was forced to scuttle a $372 million financial modernization project at its largest medical center in Florida. More recently, the department came under fire because it had underestimated the number of veterans returning from Iraq. It was forced to ask Congress for supplemental funds to help pay for their care.

The Gartner study’s five recommendations for reorganizing the VA’s IT shop include:

* Keeping its basic structure.

* Establishing three to five regions where a deputy CIO would control all IT assets.

* Creating an administrative office with deputy CIOs in charge of assets such as operations, staff functions and systems development.

* Separating IT systems and responsibilities. Operational employees would come under the supervision of a national organization reporting directly to the VA’s CIO.

* Centralizing resources. The VA’s CIO would supervise workforce resources, assets and budget.

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