Tester challenges VA to improve IT operations and processes

A letter from Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) is challenging top IT executives in the Department of Veterans Affairs to better implement health IT to improve care.

James Gfrerer recently was sworn in as Assistant Secretary for Information and Technology and CIO at the VA, and with the new appointments came a challenge from Tester asking the agency to use technology to treat veterans better.

“The operation of VA’s Office of Information and Technology (OI&T) has been under severe, well-deserved scrutiny in recent years,” Tester’s letter noted. “And I trust that the continued presence of information technology challenges on GAO’s high-risk list is of serious concern to you.

“There is no doubt that insufficient resources, a chronic lack of transparency and an inability to effectively prioritize countless completing objectives have led to serious questions about VA’s ability to meet the standard of technology necessary to serve our nation’s veterans,” Tester continued. “Today, I write to share some of the chief concerns and to request information about OI&T’s path forward.”

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To start with, Congress cannot fulfill its responsibility to fund the VA if it does not have an accurate assessment of OI&T’s true needs, Tester noted. He spoke of fumbling of IT initiatives and an information technology budget reflecting drastic cuts. Despite a fully funded increase in Fiscal Year 2019, “the account is nearly $100 million less than 2017 funding levels,” Tester contended. “A budget request that reflects the accurate needs of the Department, in addition to the resources needed for the electronic Health Record Modernization project, is essential if VA is to carry out the healthcare and benefit priorities that Congress has established.”

For example, OI&T has not ensured timely implementation of software to process monthly housing stipends, as required, and the VA cannot continue to operate in a technology environment in which the largest and latest crisis drives the agenda.

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“One key to a more proactive stance is ensuring you have permanent senior staff and adequate levels of front line staff to provide customer service to VA’s various administrations,” Tester continued. “I stand ready to assist should you need any new legislative authority or additional financial resources to support properly staffing and retaining employees.”

The Senator further warned that as the new VA electronic health record is implemented, Gfrerer’s role should be to ensure implementation mistakes of the past should not be repeated.

Tester also insisted that VA invest in IT updates to benefits, payroll, compensation, disability and appeals processes, along with the agency’s new CareGiver program, called CareT.

“It is my understanding that CareT, the new IT system being developed to support the CareGiver program, may not be able to support the current or expanded program,” Tester said. “This could ultimately force the Department to purchase a commercial off-the-shelf system and delay expansion of the Caregiver benefit. Such as outcome would be unacceptable to veterans, their families and caregivers, and Congress.”

Consequently, Tester asked for a list of VA projects including metrics and processes used to prioritize the projects. “I look forward to learning whether you will evaluate the process VA uses for IT project management,” he concluded.

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