McDonald cites IT as critical to new era for VA

In addressing the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs earlier on Tuesday, former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald, President Barack Obama's nominee to head the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, talked about several IT initiatives he views as vital to turning the agency around.

McDonald, whose nomination was confirmed by the committee, 14-0, on Wednesday morning, according to The Hill, said in his written testimony that the VA must expand its use of technology "to free human resources that can be applied more to care for the veterans."

Such technology likely will include the agency's eBenefits portal--rolled out in 2013 to speed up claims processing times--as well as an online patient scheduling system and VistA, the agency's electronic health record system.

Last month, VA CIO Stephen Warren said the agency is turning to the private sector to replace the scheduling system, which was referred to in an internal audit of the agency as "antiquated" and "problematic."

VistA, meanwhile, is also set to be modernized; Accenture Federal Services company ASM Research was awarded a $162 million contract to lead those efforts earlier this month.

McDonald also talked about the need for the VA to work with the Department of Defense on an integrated electronic health records system. The two agencies in February 2013 nixed plans to create a joint EHR, citing budget and time constraints. Since then, both the VA and the DoD have been roundly and consistently criticized, particularly by lawmakers.

"We fought a world war in four years," Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.) said at a hearing in April. "We're talking about interoperability of electronic medical records from 2008 to 2017, and I'm appalled."

In passing the 2014 Omnibus Appropriations Act in January, lawmakers stressed that the two departments must not lose sight of the interoperability goal. The bill prevents the VA from spending more than 25 percent of the VistA Evolution budget until it explains to Congress how it will adhere to data standards set up for the integrated EHR. The lawmakers also want updates on testing to ensure compatibility with the DoD systems.

McDonald, according to Nextgov, told the committee that he had already met with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and discussed, among other things, the completion of an integrated EHR system.

To learn more:
- here's McDonald's written testimony (.pdf)
- read the Nextgov article
- check out this story from The Hill