Bright ideas abounded during VA innovation contest

One out of every six VA employees participated

Thousands of Veterans Affairs Department employees previously frustrated by red tape in the bureaucracy were motivated to participate in a recent departmental innovation contest in very high numbers, a VA senior official said today.

More than 50,000 of the VA’s 300,000 employees submitted ideas, voted or commented in the contest, cosponsored by the Veterans Health Administration and the VA Office of Information and Technology, Peter Levin, the VA’s chief technology officer, said today in a conference call with media representatives.

“One out of six is a fabulous ratio,” Levin said. “I think what we had was an agency with tremendous latent energy. People have been frustrated and stymied by the lack of attention, ability and structure to get some things done.”

The department has budgeted $100 million for three innovation contests, including $80 million for the most recent competition being held to attract ideas from contractors announced on June 8, Levin said.

The first contest was sponsored by the Veterans Benefits Administration in September 2009, with a budget of $5 million. It attracted 3,500 ideas from about 7,000 VA employees.

The second was the $15 million health IT competition, with 10,000 ideas submitted. The winning 26 ideas were announced on May 28.

On June 8, the VA said it would award up to $80 million in contracts to the industry winners of the third round of the VA Industry Innovation competition. Ideas are being sought to increase veterans’ access to VA services, to reduce or control costs, to enhance VA performance or to improve the quality of service VA delivers to veterans.

The next phase of the project, which will take place over the next year, is the development of pilot implementations of the winning ideas, Levin said.

One of those winning ideas is to display a digital photograph of a patient’s face whenver the patient’s electronic health record is accessed, for example. A pilot project will be implemented at the Northport, N.Y., medical center by the idea’s originator, Dr. Mark Graber, chief of medical services at the center.

“We are not treating a chart; we are treating a patient, and this project supports that,” Graber said in the conference call.

Another winning idea was submitted by Jason Barnard, associate chief information officer at the VA’s regional office in Martinsburg, W. Va. It involves wiring up nurses and other practitioners with wireless devices so they can more readily communicate with each other while treating patients.


About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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