Veterans Affairs

VA taking free advice from tech firms on scheduling

Photo courtesy of Sen. Mark Warner's office.

Sen. Mark Warner (right) and VA Secretary Robert McDonald have praised a private-sector task force's recommendations for fixing the VA's system for scheduling medical appointments.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is in the process of implementing the recommendations in an October 2014 report by the Northern Virginia Technology Council to improve the troubled system for scheduling appointments at VA medical centers.

"We are already piloting," VA Secretary Robert McDonald told reporters at an event on Capitol Hill on Dec. 1. "We have put a number of fixes in the current system, and then we are hoping to either buy or create a new scheduling system, which will take some time to implement. The point is we are not stopping. It's a continuous process, rather than waiting for the big system to come along."

The big system -- the Medical Appointment Scheduling System -- is in development. In August, VA officials awarded a $624 million contract to electronic health record firm Epic and Lockheed Martin subsidiary Systems Made Simple to design new scheduling software that would interface with the agency's VistA EHR system.

In the meantime, McDonald said, the VA has already implemented 26 of the 39 NVTC recommendations and is working on the rest.

"There wasn't a single recommendation that any of us felt was irrelevant," he added.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who lobbied for NVTC's assistance, told reporters he understands the challenges companies face when they seek to do business with the federal government.

"We know the procurement process in the federal government sometimes takes forever," Warner said. Companies came forward to help the VA by creating "a short-term state-of-the-art action plan,...[and I am very grateful that the secretary and the VA were willing to accept this help."

The $10 billion Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, passed in 2014, required the VA to solicit advice from a technology task force on issues related to the scheduling system. The NVTC task force included representatives of Booz Allen Hamilton, HP, IBM, Mitre and SAIC. Their recommendations went beyond technology to also suggest ways to improve the VA's culture and performance.

Although wait times at Virginia hospitals have decreased dramatically, Warner said, the public and private sectors need to collaborate better to overcome other challenges, and some of them have more to do with culture than anything else.

"Too often in the public sector you don't get much reward for doing well, but you sure do catch a lot of grief if you make a mistake," Warner said. "So if your institution becomes risk-averse, that means you are not willing to try a public/private partnership, that means you are not willing to try to put in a new system. And we have to change that mindset."

"We know we can't do this job ourselves," McDonald said. "We know we need help -- the help of Congress, but we also need the help of the private sector."

About the Author

Aisha Chowdhry is a former staff writer for FCW.


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