VA CIO describes cloud, Blue Button and EHR programs

Department approaching cloud on 3 levels, Baker says at industry event

The Veterans Affairs Department will spend $2.7 billion on IT this fiscal year and is making progress in several IT areas, Roger Baker, VA assistant secretary for information and technology, has said at an industry forum.

About $800 million will be spent on IT by Sept. 30 to support VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s 16 major programs that include reducing the veterans benefits claims backlog, eliminating veteran homelessness and automating education benefits. The initiatives extend through fiscal 2017. About $300 million already is obligated from this year’s allotment, Baker said.

Those programs, in addition to modernization of the “VistA” electronic health record system and its path toward a joint system with the Defense Department, indicate that the VA is transforming itself into a more efficient and effective agency, Baker, who also is CIO, said at the Input industry forum on VA IT acquisition held May 5.

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“This is not small; it is billions of dollars, and thousands of people, turning around a tank battalion,” Baker said.

With regard to cloud computing, Baker said at the first level, the VA has created an “internal cloud” for consolidating operation of the VistA EHR system in its data centers, rather than storing the information at hospitals. The VA hospitals do not care where the data is stored, or where the system operates, as long as it continues to operate effectively, he said.

The second level of the VA’s cloud computing is that the department has outsourced data centers and hardware for VA benefits. “We are building applications under contract and running them in the data centers,” Baker said. “We bought computing capacity. It is forward-looking for the VA.”

Baker described the third level of cloud, which he called personal cloud, as the most interesting. It refers to the Web-based e-mail systems, social media and other applications to which the thousands of VA physicians have access on their personal BlackBerrys, iPhones, iPads and other devices.

The VA would like to allow the doctors to use innovative tools, but it is a major problem if the doctors use the cloud applications to store any personal data about veterans, he added.

At this time, since the Web-based tools do not meet the VA’s stringent privacy protections, they are prohibited. But Baker said he is trying to find a better solution.

“We are wrestling with this,” Baker said. “If you are a C-I-'No,' you will be irrelevant. We are trying to figure out how to get to a ‘yes’ for the personal cloud.”

The VA’s “Blue Button” program seeks to provide veterans with a simple and easy application on the Web that allows them to quickly download their personal health files. Several hundred thousand veterans have used the Blue Button since the application was made available in October 2010, Baker said.

“The Blue Button was not that hard to do," he said. "It should have been done years ago, and the impact has been tremendous."

As for the VistA modernization and consolidation, Baker said the secretaries of the VA and the Defense Department have agreed on the goal of developing a joint system. The morphing of existing systems toward that goal will include joint planning for virtualization in a common data center for the medical records, Baker said.

“We spent the last six months to get to this point: We will have a single common electronic health record system,” Baker said. “It is a huge application, with massive impact, serving 15 million patients a year.”

Shinseki met with Defense Secretary Robert Gates on May 2 to discuss the latest developments in the joint planning.

“We in no way underestimate the impact or the amount of work we have ahead of us,” Baker added. “There are hundreds of people in both departments working on this.”

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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