Watchdog Identifies Multiple Security Deficiencies at VA Medical Center in Louisiana

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

The VA’s Office of Inspector General found “critical and high-risk vulnerabilities on 37% of the devices” at the Louisiana-based medical center.

An audit conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Inspector General identified multiple deficiencies in the information technology systems at the Alexandria VA Medical Center in ​Pineville, Louisiana, including uninstalled security patches and outdated operating systems that could place “critical systems at unnecessary risk of unauthorized access, alteration or destruction.”

OIG conducted the IT security assessment to determine whether Alexandria was meeting federal guidelines under the Federal Information Security Modernization Act of 2014—also known as FISMA—which requires federal agencies to implement information security programs. Alexandria, which has an active patient roster of over 37,000, was selected for an audit because it had not been previously assessed as part of the annual FISMA review. 

The audit, released on Sept. 22, highlighted deficiencies in three of the four security control areas at Alexandria, including with configuration management, security management and access controls. The assessment did not identify any issues with the center’s contingency planning controls. 

The most significant deficiencies were identified in Alexandria’s configuration management controls, which the audit noted “identify and manage security features for all hardware and software components of an information system.” These issues included inaccurate component inventories, a flawed vulnerability management process, devices missing security patches and outdated operating systems. 

OIG identified inconsistencies in Alexandria’s component inventories that record IT assets at the center, which the audit said has been “a nationwide issue for VA.” The OIG inspection team identified 3,874 devices at Alexandria—less than the 4,110 devices identified by VA—but noted that the center “did not account for all network segments and included network segments that were not reported to the team for scanning.” After reviewing the network segments, the OIG identified a total of 872 devices that were not accounted for by VA.

The lack of accurate inventories at Alexandria “led to undetected and unaddressed critical and high-risk vulnerabilities,” according to the audit. The inspection team compared on-site vulnerability scans with those conducted remotely by VA’s Office of Information and Technology from Jan. 10 to Jan. 14, 2022, and found five critical vulnerabilities and three high-risk vulnerabilities that were not detected. And the assessment also identified 33 vulnerabilities—“17 critical vulnerabilities on 8% of the devices and 16 high-risk vulnerabilities on 29% of the devices”—that were not addressed within the VA’s mandated remediation timeframe. 

Several of the critical and high-risk vulnerabilities had security patches available that had not been applied, and some of the vulnerabilities “had been on the network for as long as three years after initial discovery by VA.” 

“Without an effective patch management program, vulnerabilities such as security and functionality problems in software and firmware might not be mitigated, increasing opportunities for exploitation,” OIG said. 

Additionally, the audit found that 12% of Alexandria’s network switches used unsupported or out-of-date systems, leaving them unable to receive required maintenance and vulnerability support that “can result in an opportunity for adversaries to exploit weaknesses in the components.” 

Other deficiencies at Alexandria identified by OIG’s inspection team included an outdated physical access control system for Alexandria’s data center and core switch room; improperly installed network infrastructure equipment; failed power supplies; and identification and authentication controls that did not meet the standards of VA’s information security policy. OIG also found that Alexandria’s video surveillance system lacked an authorization to operate, which is “a requirement for systems with an external connection.”

The OIG made six recommendations to VA’s assistant secretary for information and technology and chief information officer “because they are related to enterprise-wide IT security issues similar to those identified on previous FISMA audits and IT security reviews.” OIG also made an additional two recommendations to Alexandria’s director. VA concurred with all eight recommendations and asked that four recommendations—including those related to the implementation of a vulnerability and flaw remediation program and the use of more effective inventory management tools—be closed because of corrective actions. OIG agreed and closed those four recommendations. 

VA has struggled to adhere to FISMA’s requirements over the past several years. A previous fiscal year 2021 audit of VA’s agencywide FISMA compliance released in April found that the department “continues to face significant challenges in complying with FISMA due to the nature and maturity of its information security program.” All 26 of the recommendations included in the fiscal year 2021 audit were the same ones that had previously been recommended in the fiscal year 2020 audit of VA’s FISMA compliance released in April 2021.