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Before Buying New Scheduling System, VA Plans to Kick the Tires

hree statues portraying a wounded soldier being helped, stand on the grounds of the Minneapolis VA Hospital, Monday, June 9, 2014.

hree statues portraying a wounded soldier being helped, stand on the grounds of the Minneapolis VA Hospital, Monday, June 9, 2014. // Jim Mone/AP

Six months after revelations of lengthy wait times faced by veterans seeking care embroiled the Department of Veterans Affairs in scandal, the agency is putting the finishing touches on its proposed shopping list for buying updated scheduling software.

A request for proposal for the new scheduling system is “going to hit the street no later than" Nov. 21, VA Chief Information Officer Stephen Warren told reporters during a press call last week.

The agency’s search for a new system is a “free and open” procurement, Warren said. Companies don’t need to have a preexisting relationship with the agency to compete.

But vendors interested in submitting their software for consideration should be prepared for a healthy kicking of the tires by VA tech officials -- and frontline schedulers -- before the agency ponies up, officials said.

Delayed care for veterans seeking care mired the agency in controversy last spring, eventually leading to a leadership shakeup. Internal watchdog reports cited manipulation of data by VA schedulers -- and the agency’s antiquated system scheduling system -- as contributing factors.

As a replacement for the unwieldy legacy system, the agency is looking for a commercially available solution, "something that is already out there and already in play and is already being used to do scheduling,” Warren told reporters.

VA Planning Two-Step Procurement Process

The scheduling procurement will follow a two-step process, Warren said.

First, companies will be asked to provide submissions explaining how they meet the department’s baseline criteria. From those submissions, VA will "down-select" to a smaller group of firms that will demonstrate their software capabilities directly to VA schedulers

“So, it is not folks who sit at headquarters,” Warren said. ”It is going to be individuals who do scheduling day in and day out, so we can make sure the functionality that is claimed is delivered.”

At the time of the on-site demonstrations, Warren's team will also deploy technical teams to make sure the system properly links up with the Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture, the department’s health IT system.

"But the primary focus is usability, which is why we are asking for something that already exists, because we have seen in the marketplace that the tools and the technologies are already there,” he said.

RFP Deadline Two Months Behind Original Goal

VA first announced in August its plans to issue an RFP for the new scheduling software. At that time, officials were hopeful the solicitation would be released to industry by the end of September.

That later shifted to end of October and the goal to release the RFP is now the end of the week.

What explains the stretched deadline?

“We want to make sure we bring in that solution that's going to solve this problem once and for all,” Warren said. “We want to make sure we've given the appropriate amount of time so that it gets done right this time."

In developing the solicitation, VA met with veterans service organizations, took advice from the Northern Virginia Technology Council, a technology trade association, and combed through 300 technical comments from potential bidding teams.

In the meantime, VA has already awarded a contract to tweak the existing scheduling interface to make it easier to use. Warren said the first rollout of the interim fixes would occur next month.

“That has allowed us to spend a little bit of extra time to dot all the i's and cross the t's” on the scheduling RFP, Warren said.

VA has also continued work on developing a system for scheduling veterans’ telehealth appointments. The agency demonstrated that new software late last month.

VA has said it plans to award the schedule-system contract by January 2015, with deployment of the system coming by 2017.

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