VA admits past IT failures, turns to commercial solutions

Veterans affairs sign
VA officials testified Tuesday that they are in the process of purchasing commercial IT products, shifting from its previous in-house approach.

Officials with the Department of Veterans Affairs repeatedly told lawmakers that the agency is moving on from its failed approach of building in-house IT systems, and is instead seeking commercial, off-the-shelf options to improve scheduling, EHR interoperability, and billing and claims processing.

In a hearing before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on Tuesday, Rob Thomas, acting assistant secretary for information technology and CIO for the Office of Information and Technology at the VA, acknowledged previous failures in the agency’s attempt to modernize IT systems, but noted that it is no longer trying to build systems from the ground up.  

“I’m confident we’re going to go commercial,” Thomas said, noting that the VA is considering commercial products and moving data to the cloud instead of spending money building customized in-house systems. However, he declined to offer a completion date.  

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Lawmakers continued to criticize VA officials for using decades-old legacy systems, drawing comparisons to the overwhelming costs required to maintain an old car. As the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has previously pointed out, a large portion of the VA’s $4 billion IT budget goes to managing outdated systems that are more than 50 years old.

Since 2015, the GAO has included the VA’s IT systems and the lack of interoperability between the Department of Defense and the VA on its list of “high risk” areas, and an official at the hearing said it would be included on the agency's 2017 list. The GAO has been critical of the VA's efforts to modernize its systems, highlighting an estimated $127 million in wasted funding used to rebuild the VA’s outpatient scheduling system.

In a report released during the hearing, the GAO again criticized the VA for ongoing failures tied to its IT modernization efforts and recommended the agency develop concrete goals and metrics moving forward.

“The problem with federal government is that they are so reluctant to buy commercial products and change antiquated business practices,” David Powner, director of IT management issues at the GAO, said during the hearing. He added that the VA could save “hundreds of millions of dollars” by improving data consolidation efforts.

"Buying instead of building is the way to go," he added.

Thomas agreed that the VA needs to aggressively shrink its footprint and spend less to maintain old legacy systems. He added that he is hoping for a speedy confirmation for David Shulkin, President Donald Trump’s selection to lead the VA, so they could roll out a timeline for purchasing commercial systems.

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Despite its history of modernization failures, Jennifer Lee, M.D., deputy under secretary for health for Policy and Services at the VA, did emphasize the success of the agency’s enterprise Health Management Platform (eHMP), which allows physicians to access patient information from other participating hospitals outside of the VA system.

Following failed attempts by the VA to modernize its VistA EHR system, the previous VA CIO, LaVerne Council, initiated a request for information to replace the system with a commercial product. Council previously testified that she cringes when she thinks about how old some of the VA systems are.

Thomas noted that he was he was chosen to replace Council to continue that transition toward an off-the-shelf product, noting that prior administrations did not have a coherent strategy for IT modernization or cybersecurity. But, given the VA’s history in missing deadlines, Powner urged Congress to hold quarterly meetings and manage the process “with a heavy hand to make sure deadlines are met.”