VA makes headway in managing IT

The Veterans Affairs Department has moved toward more disciplined oversight of its information technology budget and resources, but the Government Accountability Office said it cannot judge the initiative’s full effect until all aspects have been implemented.

VA gave authority over IT budget and development to the department’s chief information officer, and it is one of the few agencies to have done so. VA officials made the change because of problems in managing projects, including major cost overruns, inadequate performance and schedule delays.

VA’s proposed IT budget for fiscal 2009 is $2.4 billion, an 18.9 percent increase over this year’s spending. The majority of the increase is targeted for health care IT.

To establish management controls, CIO Robert Howard designated leaders to develop VA’s annual IT budget and track spending against that budget. VA has also established governance boards to oversee the budget and manage IT investments, said Valerie Melvin, director of human capital and management information systems issues at GAO.

But the boards have only been involved with executing this year’s budget and formulating the fiscal 2009 budget, she said. They have yet to be critical participants in all stages of planning and implementing a fiscal year’s budget.

“VA is in the initial stages of implementing new management processes that are critical to centralizing its control over the IT resources and budget,” Melvin said at a Feb. 13 hearing of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

To gain more control over the IT budget, Howard is developing processes for managing projects, portfolios and service-level agreements. Although VA officials had initially expected to have those controls in place by July, that might not be possible until fiscal 2011, Melvin said. They did not give her a completion date for the service-level agreements capability.

Placing all IT staff, equipment and funds under the CIO’s oversight has provided a complete picture of IT activities at VA, Howard said.

“The move toward a centralized IT management system has been challenging, but it has also served to reinvigorate IT capability within VA,” he told lawmakers.

His most urgent goals are to accelerate the design and implementation of electronic health records that are interoperable with the Defense Department’s, streamline claims processing by improving IT support and ensure that benefit counselors traveling to DOD sites have portable IT equipment that is encrypted to protect service members’ privacy.

In fiscal 2009, VA plans to deliver a business rules engine, workflow engine and new testing services as part of HealtheVetVistA, the next generation of VA’s EHR system, Howard said. VA will also continue to standardize activities that support sharing records with DOD and work to establish a common architecture to eliminate duplication in coding and provide a common terminology among applications.

The first version of a new scheduling application, which aims to decrease wait times for appointments, will debut at the VA Medical Center in Muskogee, Okla., in June. In 2009, VA will prepare for the application’s national deployment by making any adjustments identified during the initial installation, acquiring necessary hardware and software, and launching a training campaign. VA will complete the national implementation in 2011.

Beginning this year and continuing into 2009, VA will expand the capability of MyHealtheVet, which lets veterans make appointments and refill prescriptions online, store portions of their EHRs in their personal eVaults, and enter additional health information. Veterans must visit a VA medical center for in-person authentication before accessing their information online.

Although VA is seeking to increase IT spending in fiscal 2009, it is asking for only $76 million in funding for the Office of the Inspector General — a decrease of $4 million compared with the current year’s spending. The IG oversees VA activities related to information management, benefits processing, financial management, health care delivery and procurement.

“The impact of that decrease would be the loss of 48 positions and fewer audits, criminal investigations and report recommendations over VA operations,” said Jon Wooditch, VA’s deputy inspector general.

The IG’s criminal investigators have uncovered fraud, waste and abuse within the department and among vendors that work for VA.

Post-award fraud, waste and abuse among all contracted services in 2007 could amount to as much as several hundred million dollars, said James O’Neill, assistant IG for auditing.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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