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VA's chief information officer makes pitch for more funding

The Veterans Affairs Department's chief information officer delivered a mixed message to the House Military Construction-VA Appropriations Subcommittee Thursday, telling lawmakers that the agency has made great progress since its massive data breach two years ago, but many information technology challenges remain.

Comment on this article in The Forum.The Bush administration requested more than $2.4 billion in fiscal 2009 to support VA IT systems development and operations, an increase of 18.9 percent over fiscal 2008, said Assistant Secretary for IT Robert Howard.

The request, almost $500 million more than what Congress approved for fiscal 2008, reflects the department's IT realignment and centralization efforts, he said.

"This has been a complicated and somewhat disruptive process for the department to undertake," Military Construction-VA Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Chet Edwards, D-Texas, said. Before the May 2006 incident, which could have exposed an estimated 26.5 million veterans' names, Social Security numbers and dates of birth, IT security and "meaningful oversight" were lacking, he said.

During his tenure, which began in September 2006, Howard has flagged and tried to address numerous needed changes, especially in the areas of data security and privacy. From fiscal 2006 to fiscal 2007, his office placed 5,010 personnel throughout the agency in addition to the original 519 IT employees. In fiscal 2008, he was given budget authority to consolidate development, operations and maintenance workforces for a total staffing level of 6,686.

The result has been a more standardized approach for various VA departmental activities; an acceleration of e-health record management to meet national health IT standards; and improved interoperability with the Defense Department, Howard said.

The proposed funding is a "sizable increase" over what has recently been a flat budget, Howard said. About $1.2 billion is requested for what he called "veteran-facing IT systems," which would support medical care, compensation, pensions, employment services and other programs. Roughly $418 million would go toward "internal-facing systems," which relate to asset management, human capital, and IT infrastructure.

Military Construction-VA Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., seemed skeptical, saying the requested VA IT funding "rivals almost the entire budget for the legislative branch."

Continued weaknesses and problems acknowledged by the VA's inspector general and confirmed by Howard were disheartening, he said. IT investments are important, but "this is an example where the money is not enough," he added.

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