Veterans Affairs

VA chief lays out 2016 priorities, including IT improvements

Robert McDonald

The head of the Department of Veterans Affairs laid out 12 goals for 2016 and touted IT accomplishments from 2015 in a Capitol Hill appearances. His message, however, was met with skepticism from lawmakers.

"We have a lot of work to do that but we are making progress," VA Secretary Robert McDonald testified before the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs on Jan 21. Some of his priorities for the year include improving veteran experience, updating  IT infrastructure and changing the culture within the organization.

Lawmakers in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle have been flummoxed and angered by a host of seemingly intractable problems at the veteran's agency.

In his written testimony, McDonald cited the confirmation of LaVerne Council, the agency's top IT official, and the development of a multi-year plan for "creating a world class Information Technology organization" as achievements in 2015.

For this year, the VA plans to close all current cybersecurity weaknesses, develop a holistic veteran data management strategy, make sure at least 50 percent of projects are on time and on budget, transform vendor management, strengthen the strategy behind VA's homegrown Vista health record system, and finalize the required Department of Defense –VA health record interoperability. McDonald said the agency wants to make the key digital platform for veterans and their families to access benefits and services; the secretary said he wanted the top 100 search terms to be within "one click" of users.

Some lawmakers saw progress 18 months into McDonald's tenure.

"We have a major culture problem there," Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) told FCW. "But I think one of the keys that he suggested was rather than a culture of following rules, we should be following principles. To me, that is a breakthrough discussion."

Others were not swayed.

"There have been so many plans over so many years that I want to see results. And we are confronting diminishing time, so I'm going to continue pressing for action," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told FCW. He also noted the VA needs to be more "specific and complete" with legislative action that they feel is required by Congress to help achieve its goals.

Blumenthal argued that the number of pending disability claims may have gone down but the appeals have increased, pushing "the problem down the road in the process." He said VA officials need to address that issue,  because "those people still are not receiving what they need."

McDonald said the VA plans to get 90 percent of the appeals resolved this year. "We will have to overhaul the appeal process," he told the committee.

The secretary also addressed the department's IT infrastructure, saying that modernization is a priority. The current scheduling system dates back to 1985 and the agency's financial management is still written in COBOL. "This is simply unacceptable," McDonald said. He also focused his requests from Congress on issues regarding provider agreements, consolidation care in community and flexible budget authority. "We are going to have to get the legislation we need," he said, "but if we don't we'll have to dial back."

Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana pushed for more action from the VA. "I think you need to be very very direct with this committee with what needs to be passed if you are going to meet the needs of the veterans out there," he said.

Rounds said the strategy was a step in the right direction, but that more is needed. "It's one thing to have a plan," he said. "It's another thing to actually execute it."

About the Author

Aisha Chowdhry is a former staff writer for FCW.


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