What's Brewin: $355 million for GI bill claims system?

Culture clash between VA and SPAWAR delays system for determining educational benefits.

That's one conclusion that could be drawn from a planning meeting that the Space and Naval Warfare System Command held in December to discuss building a network to process claims for educational benefits that veterans will file under the new GI bill. The Veterans Affairs Department tapped SPAWAR to develop the system.

A reader told me that one of the topics discussed at the meeting was that the project to build the claims processing system is so big that if it was a pure Defense Department program it would end up classified as an Acquisition Category I program. That classification is for any project that has a price tag of $355 million or more. At a Hill meeting in October, VA pegged the cost of the system at $130 million. I sure hope the Senate and House VA committees take a look at what appears to be a huge jump in the sticker price.

The new GI bill goes into effect in August. But the December meeting appears to be the first SPAWAR has held with vendors to figure out how to build an application that will determine highly complex benefits for potentially 500,000 (and growing) veterans.

Part of the delay in getting organized, I'm told, was because a turf battle erupted within the command over who would manage the VA job. A team headed by Don Oswalt from SPAWAR Atlantic Information Assurance group was tapped to lead the effort.

Top VA leadership, including Patrick Dunne, undersecretary for benefits, held another meeting on the SPAWAR GI bill work this month. Dunne, I'm told, was frustrated because VA staff working on the project couldn't give him information "because SPAWAR was uncommunicative, disorganized and focused on internal SPAWAR politics."

The VA/SPAWAR summit ended up being a clash of cultures, processes and even vocabularies. VA doesn't grasp the nuances of the role of a military Program Executive Office and SPAWAR doesn't understand VA's lack of process and discipline. Harsh words were exchanged, and from what I hear, very little was accomplished. There was general agreement that there needs to be better two-way communications, but what that means is vague.

Maybe VA and SPAWAR should have one of those team-building retreats.

Top Doc Casscells to Stay On Through Transition

Dr. S. Ward Casscells, the assistant secretary of Defense for health affairs, told me in an e-mail that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has asked him to stay on in his current job until the new administration can find a replacement.

Casscells said it will be fun to see how the new president and his team build on the health information technology work President Bush started. All indications are Obama plans to make health IT a key part of his stimulus package.

Looking back at his time in office, which started April 2007, Casscells said the Military Health System has become a bit more open and trusting place to work and TRICARE, the Defense health insurance system, is now ranked No. 1 in terms of patient satisfaction among all U.S. health care plans, according to Managed Care magazine.

What Casscells did not mention in his note to me is that he is a leader who walks the walk rather than just talking. That's best exemplified by his policy of doing rounds at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and other military hospitals. Hopefully, the new Defense top doc will continue this policy -- or maybe Casscells will end up staying, which from my perspective would serve the troops well.

Still Frustrated by AHLTA

Casscells told me that he was still frustrated with the slow pace in fixing some of the problems with the MHS health IT system, the Armed Forces Health Longitudinal Technology Application. But he said he will now have the time to work on those problems with Chuck Campbell, the MHS CIO and the new Defense/VA interagency program office on joint health IT systems.

MHS also has to improve the way it determines disability and how it manages post-traumatic stress disorder patients and research, but Casscells said MHS is now on the right track for these issues.

The Army Goes Green

The Army plans to introduce at Fort Myer, Va., on Monday the first six neighborhood electric vehicles it plans to lease as part of a comprehensive and far-reaching energy security initiative, Army spokesman Lt. Col. Martin Downie told me.

Eventually, the service plans to lease 4,000, making it the largest acquisition of electric vehicles in the United States by any entity to date, Downie said. By gradually replacing gas-powered vehicles with the more fuel-efficient electric vehicles, aka NEVs, the Army will save 11 million gallons of fuel over the vehicles' six-year service life -- and reduce carbon dioxide by 115,000 tons.

The Army could lease a significant number of NEVs to begin replacement of its fleet of 28,000 nontactical sedans and light trucks. The service has nearly 68,000 nontactical vehicles. While the Army will lease NEVs from several manufacturers, the Fort Myer vehicles are manufactured by the Global Electric Motorcars division of Chrysler Corp.

Whoever thought the Army would talk about its carbon footprint?