VA finally gets its IT all in one basket

Department to complete transition by April

Between Dec. 18 and next April, the Veterans Affairs Department expects to complete what a chorus of administration, congressional and IT experts have been advocating for years—centralizing its IT organization.

VA secretary Jim Nicholson on Oct. 31 approved the complete centralization plan, which will bring application and enterprise development—which had been spread out among several administrations within VA—under the control of department CIO Robert Howard. VA deputy CIO for enterprise development Paul Tibbits is responsible for VA IT development.

VA in October moved 4,500 operations and maintenance IT workers under the CIO as the first step in the original federated model. Beginning Dec. 18, the agency will begin moving up to 1,200 applications development staff from the health, benefits and burial administrations to the department CIO. Still to be negotiated is who is applications development staff and who is requirements staff. Under centralization, requirements personnel remain with the administrations.

Those who worked to prod the sprawling department to change said veterans will reap the benefits.

“It’s the right thing to do. There will be great rewards,” said former CIO Robert McFarland, who resigned in April because of the contentious atmosphere that resulted from his efforts to centralize VA IT. He now lives in Austin, Texas.

One of the first benefits of consolidating disparate IT resources and centralizing databases likely will be a single registration and eligibility system for veterans, he said. Currently, veterans have to go through multiple registrations for various benefits and services.

“As you develop applications in the future, you’ll look at VA needs in a single application, rather than fiefdoms,” he said.

Some, however, expressed wariness about the aggressive schedule for centralization.

“It’s daunting. There are so many places that it can go wrong with serious consequences,” said an observer who has closely watched VA but who did not wish to be identified.

That observer said that VA should first centralize the infrastructure and then focus on application development.

Modernize records

One of its priorities that will address both infrastructure and application development is the effort to modernize its VistA electronic-records system. VistA eventually will migrate to the HealtheVetVistA system under the centralized, enterprise approach. It has to transform itself from a hospital-based system to a patient-centered one without losing any of its current functionality.

The infrastructure challenge VA faces is that VistA has many versions to suit individual regional networks and even individual facilities and physicians. At the same time, VA must upgrade VistA applications to meet all facilities’ and doctors’ needs.

“Getting efficient is important, but it can’t be at the expense of the medical end user. He’s going to howl,” the observer said, adding that some physicians who built the original applications could choose to retire instead.

For some of those reasons, VA originally planned to keep applications development within its health, benefits and burial administrations and place management of its IT maintenance and operations under the department CIO in the federated model.

Nicholson told a congressional hearing last summer that he would eventually centralize the IT organization, but he has since accelerated the transformation, Howard said.

“He was going to do it anyway, but there were things that occurred since last summer that caused him to go ahead and move forward,” he said.

These included VA’s contract award to IBM Corp. in June to implement its IT realignment and develop a target organization structure. Under the contract, IBM would assess VA’s progress under the federated and centralized models. But Nicholson decided that it was more efficient and less costly to move to the fully centralized model and have IBM evaluate it only once.

The contract will run through July 2008, when VA expects to be fully transitioned and operational under the single IT leadership. VA set aside $25 million for the project, a VA spokeswoman said.

VA has been gradually moving from a decentralized system to a more centralized one.But the incremental transition process revealed difficult issues, and VA has to make hard decisions around legacy systems, standards and interoperability, said IBM’s draft reorganization.

Another pressure point for Nicholson was an August executive order to accelerate centralization, Howard said. The president directed agencies to comply with
interoperability, cost and quality objectives for health IT in addition to quality data to patients, beneficiaries and federal employees. That will require that VA migrate to standards-based systems that VA consistently implements across its agencies.

Additionally, House lawmakers in Nov. 2005 passed legislation spearheaded by House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) to centralize IT authority under the department CIO.

Buyer praised Nicholson for responding to the concerns and recommendations of Congress, best practices of private-sector technology and the president’s intent to improve government efficiency.

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