House votes to centralize Veterans Affairs IT spending

The House on Wednesday unanimously approved legislation that would centralize the Veterans Affairs Department's information technology budget, personnel, assets and procedures in the chief information officer's office.

The 2005 Department of Veterans Affairs Information Technology Management Improvement Act (H.R. 4061), sponsored by House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Steve Buyer, R-Ind., would give CIO Robert McFarland control over nearly all of the department's IT policies and procedures.

According to the committee, years of cost overruns, mismanagement, unfinished projects, and a lack of accountability have "hijacked the goals" of centralizing the department's IT functions through a program known as "One-Va."

Over the last decade, roughly $1 billion has been spent each year upgrading the VA's technology infrastructure. The department received $1.6 billion for IT in fiscal 2005 and $1.4 billion in fiscal 2004, according to the committee.

The VA's system for IT development and management is currently spread among the Veterans Health, the Veterans Benefits and the National Cemetery administrations, with each developing and managing its own IT functions.

Each funds its IT efforts through its own account, according to the committee, essentially creating "three separate IT infrastructures within the department."

"Since coming to Congress, I have witnessed [the] VA's inability to adequately manage its IT funding and modernization efforts," Buyer said. "Unfortunately, the Department has annually spent billions of dollars without accountability or measurable performance outcomes on IT modernization."

Under the proposed legislation, the department CIO would select a CIO for each administration.

According to the committee, six hearings have been held since 2000, focusing on the problems of several of the department's pilot IT projects.

Some of the more prominent failures highlighted by the committee include expenditures of: more than $600 million for an automated compensation and pension claims processing system that has yet to be implemented after 10 years; $342 million for a financial management system that failed; $300 million for a automated personnel system that also failed; and $485 million a year for maintenance of a 25-year-old medical information system.

In a recently completed review of the department's IT infrastructure, Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Consulting cited a lack of accountability for how and when IT funds are spent. The Government Accountability Office has reported that since 1998, the VA has had numerous problems managing its IT programs.

Gartner found in a May 2005 report that centralizing the management of IT could save more than $1.7 billion over the course of five years.

John Gauss, the VA's CIO from August 2001 to June 2003, said that as the department technology chief, he had to work with the undersecretaries for the three administrations to decide how much money would be allotted to IT projects.

"You have priorities that have to be dealt with," Gauss told Government Executive. "In the health care arena, do you spend money on IT or on patient care?"

Gauss, who runs a Washington, D.C.-based consulting business called Gauss Consulting Service Inc., said that the success of the legislation will still depend on whether the department's undersecretaries and the CIO can agree on the funding levels.

"Do you execute 100 percent of your IT programs, or do you trade off dollars in order to provide more patient care and/or benefits?" Gauss said.

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