VA is slow to upgrade tech security, GAO says

The Veterans Affairs Department has not yet fully implemented information security upgrades that auditors recommended after a massive data breach last year, according to a report released Wednesday.

The Government Accountability Office said the department is moving slowly to address the data security weaknesses exposed by an incident that compromised the personal information of roughly 26.5 million veterans. GAO found that the department has not fulfilled 20 of the 22 recommendations it issued along with the VA's inspector general last year about how the data system can be strengthened.

"Because these recommendations have not yet been implemented, unnecessary risk exists that the personal information of veterans and others, such as medical providers, will be exposed to data, tampering, fraud and inappropriate disclosure," the new GAO report said.

The breach occurred when a computer drive containing sensitive data was stolen from the home of a department tech specialist. It was the largest data breach in U.S. government history.

According to GAO, the only two of its recommendations the department has implemented in response to the breach involve regular reporting about the development of the VA's security plan and developing a process for managing an action plan.

When asked Wednesday by Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, about whether the department is on track in its mission to become the federal government's "gold standard" in data security, VA Assistant Secretary for Information and Technology Robert Howard said he does not know.

"It's a difficult question," he said at a hearing on the department's overall IT efforts.

Howard said the department has made significant progress in certain areas, particularly with enhancing its system for identifying and reporting security gaps. He insisted that 2008 will be an important year because the department will be implementing several key contracts.

Lawmakers at the hearing also tried to gauge the department's progress toward centralizing its IT system and enhancing its e-health capabilities.

VA Secretary Jim Nicholson approved a new organization structure for the department earlier this year. Part of that effort involves transferring 6,000 employees to its technology office. The department's delivery of health care is a key part of the realignment plan.

Nicholson told House lawmakers on Tuesday that the department is struggling to deal with backlogs in claims for veterans of the Iraq war. A recent audit completed by the department's inspector general also identified gaps in its e-health system that affected patient data and led to long wait times for appointments.

Howard acknowledged the department's struggles to upgrade its e-health system. But he said the pressure Congress is putting on both the Defense and VA departments is helping the process.

Akaka said the accuracy of the information in the VA system is imperative and Congress will not be able to effectively direct resources to the department if it cannot rely on the data the department provides.

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