Congress okays upgrade of VA's 29-year-old software

Lack of software upgrades was part of the problem for scandal-plagued agency

A bipartisan agreement in Congress this week to allocate $17 billion to the Department of Veterans Affairs includes a major technology upgrade of a scheduling system that went live in April.

April, 1985.

Most of the money in the bill, approved Monday by a House and Senate conference committee and now awaiting a final vote, will expand medical care for veterans. But technology improvements included in it look to be significant. Specifically, the bill creates a "technology task force" to review the VA's scheduling system and software.

The VA has already begun a process to replace its scheduling software, and recently met with vendors to outline the goals for a new system that helps nearly nine million veterans a year at 1,700 sites.

The funding was spurred by revelations of veterans who died while waiting for VA care in Phoenix. Scheduling data was manipulated to make the performance at VA facilities appear to be better than it actually was. A bonus system that rewarded performance has received some of the blame for fostering a problem that extends beyond Phoenix.

On Tuesday, the VA announced a series of disciplinary actions against six employees in Wyoming and Colorado for data manipulations and withholding accurate data. But the VA's management problems also put attention on the software and the need to upgrade it.

Mike Davies, executive director of access and clinic administration at the VA, met with the vendors recently and said of the VA's problems "part of it is - the software is the constraint," according to a VA-posted video of his meeting.

Davies outlined an error-prone scheduling system and said it was not getting the investment it needed. A core problem was matching patients with medical professionals, a process that could involve multiple screens.

The VA is considering an off-the-shelf replacement that can work with its existing electronic medical records system.

The agency hopes to have a contract for a new patient scheduling system by the end of this fiscal year, Sept. 30, and a new system in place sometime in 2015.

Jim Johnson, founder and chairman of Standish Group, which tracks software projects' success rates, called that timeframe aggressive. "Trying to do big projects quickly is always a challenge," he said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is

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