Veteran Affairs overhaul includes IT assessment

A senator pushes for a provision that would require the VA to seek private IT advice on its scheduling system

President Obamab signed legislation Thursday focused on overhauling the Department of Veteran Affairs' troubled health-care system, including an IT review of the VA's process of scheduling patients.

The $16 billion overhaul of the VA health-care system is designed to eliminate long waiting periods for military veterans to get health services at some VA medical centers. In some cases, veterans waiting for doctor's appointments died, according to reports.

Part of the legislation allows for the agency to enlist pro bono assistance of private-sector IT experts to help fix what critics have called a "broken" scheduling system at the VA.

Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat who pushed for the IT provisions, praised the legislation. He called it a "huge win" for veterans.

"I'm very, very pleased this law includes my provision to bring in a team of the best and brightest IT experts to work with the VA to more quickly and efficiently provide our veterans with the care and services they have earned," he said in a statement. "Even better, this won't cost tax payers a dime."

A May report from the VA's Office of Inspector General found an antiquated process of scheduling health-care appointments at VA facilities in Phoenix, where reports of significant waiting times first surfaced.

From February 2013 until March, veterans who called the help line to enroll in the Phoenix health-care system and get an initial primary-care appointment first had their information collected by a help-line staff member. The help-line worker would collect the patient information on a computerized system, then print out a screen shot.

The screen shots would then go to other workers to enter the information into the VA's separate electronic wait list, according to the report. The process of printing out the veterans' health-care information and re-entering it into a new system resulted in frequent "delays and backlogs," with patients told the process would take three to five months, the IG's report said.

Warner and the Northern Virginia Technology Council, a trade group of Virginia IT vendors, had worked with the VA and the White House for several weeks to design a "workable plan" for private IT consulting help for the agency, Warner said in a statement.

Warner's provision requires the VA's secretary to enlist a task force of technology companies to review "the needs of the department with respect to the scheduling system and scheduling software," and to report within 45 days with specific actions to improve scheduling and software. The provision requires the VA secretary to implement these recommendations within one year of receiving the pro bono assessment.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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