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VA OI&T Continues to Move Forward Despite Changes in Top Ranks of the Agency

Published: February 16, 2017

Electronic Health RecordHealth ITVA

February has turned out to be a newsworthy month at VA and VA’s Office of Information and Technology (OI&T).

Leadership Changes

On the heels of VA CIO LaVerne Council’s departure, acting CIO Rob Thomas, announced changes in OI&T positions. Roopangi Kadakia, VA's current chief information security officer, will become an expert in the Enterprise Program Management Office to help lead the agency's ongoing cloud transformation. Dominic Cussatt, who helped lead the VA Enterprise Cybersecurity Strategy, will become acting chief information security officer.

On February 13th, the Senate confirmed David Shulkin, M.D. as the new Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs by unanimous vote.  Shulkin is the only VA secretary without military service and the only Trump cabinet member who was also an Obama administration appointee.  Shulkin was the former Under Secretary for Health VHA.

IT Modernization

On February 7th, the House Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing to examine the major IT modernization projects and programs underway at VA.  David Powner testified on behalf of GAO and Rob Thomas, along with Bradley Houston, Director of VBA Office of Business Integration and Dr. Jennifer S. Lee, VHA Deputy Under Secretary for Health for Policy and Services, testified on behalf of the VA.

Powner cited previous GAO studies evaluating VA’s efforts to modernize the electronic health record system VistA, the outpatient appointment scheduling system, the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS), and consolidate data centers.    GAO recognizes the progress that has been made in some areas, but with over $4 billion in play for VA IT, it believes it is essential that VA more effectively manage and modernize its IT systems in order to effectively serve the nation's veterans.

Thomas agreed that more needs to be done to improve VA IT, but insists that the past 18 months have been fundamental in establishing a strategy and framework for moving forward. Thomas told the committee, “We lacked a coherent strategy. We lacked the right processes and procedures. For the past 18 months, we have been going through an incredible transformation. … That transformation is happening. Now we need to get on with it, which is what we aim to do.”

Thomas told the committee that VA is focused on five major IT systems, which have experienced directional changes, delays, and cost overruns.   The five systems include:

  • VistA Evolution
  • VistA Scheduling Enhancements (VSE)
  • Medical Appointment Scheduling System (MASS)
  • Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS)
  • Financial Management

Thomas also stated during the hearing, “"My goal is to go commercial to the greatest extent possible," when referring to the future of VA’s EHR, VistA. 

On February 10th, VA decided to move ahead with testing of its homegrown scheduling system, VistA Scheduling Enhancements (VSE).  At the time of the House committee hearing, this decision had not been made, but committee members expressed their concern regarding the fact that VA was in the midst of four different scheduling system implementations and updates: VSE, MASS, a coming procurement for a commercial self-scheduling system required under the Faster Cares for Veterans Act of 2016, and an effort to expand the Vista Veterans Access Request self-scheduling module.

VA has made great strides in developing processes and a framework to speed modernization efforts and to keep projects on time and on budget. Modern IT systems and infrastructure are crucial to serving veterans’ needs and protecting the massive stores of data entrusted to the agency.  The former CIO laid a solid foundation for OI&T to achieve success in its IT goals and systems modernization. However, VA has a long way to go and the short tenures of VA CIOs provide little continuity which make progress challenging.