VA tapped COVID funds to bolster IT and digital services

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The VA used supplemental COVID funding from three different bills to support expanded telehealth services and remote operations during the worst of the pandemic.

The Department of Veterans Affairs spent a significant portion of the roughly $36.7 billion in combined COVID-19 relief funding it received in 2020 and 2021 to enhance departmentwide digital services and improve its information technology efforts, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office released on Tuesday. 

The GAO analysis was required by the VA Transparency and Trust Act of 2021, which included a provision requiring GAO to “review obligations and expenditures of the supplemental funds” that the department received from three COVID relief bills: the CARES Act, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act—or FFCRA—and the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021—or ARPA. 

“As of August 23, 2022, VA had obligated approximately 99 percent of its funds from the CARES Act and FFCRA and 56.9 percent of funds from ARPA,” the report noted.

GAO found that VA obligated the majority of the supplemental COVID relief funding that it received to three major operational areas, including veterans’ health care, digital operations and IT services. Funding digital operations and underlying IT services was critical during the pandemic, as VA saw a sharp increase in the number of remote veterans that it served in just the first half of 2020—from 59,000 unique daily users in February 2020 to more than 127,000 in June 2020.

Given the increased reliance on telehealth services and remote operations during the COVID-19 outbreak, GAO found that these funds, in part, helped to “support distance learning and to convert paper files to digital so employees could continue processing disability benefits for veterans,” as well as enhanced IT-related efforts that included “providing laptops and cell phones to support expanded telework and telehealth.” 

The report also noted that VA allocated significant portions of the relief funding it received from all three bills to its Office of Information and Technology—or OIT—which is responsible for providing IT-related tools and services across the department. GAO noted that OIT “assisted VA components with transitions to telehealth and telework” during the pandemic.

GAO’s analysis found that VA received a combined $19.62 billion in supplemental relief funding from the CARES Act and FFCRA in March 2020. Of the $2.19 billion in CARES Act funding that VA obligated to OIT, $1.84 billion—or 84.5 percent—went to sustain IT efforts that included supporting expanded telehealth services. OIT also allocated an additional $273.51 million in funds to hire temporary staff to assist with virtual pandemic response efforts, including providing “technical support for on-site and remote users.”

VA also received an additional $17.08 billion in ARPA funding, of which $6.45 billion had been allocated as of July 31, 2022. GAO found that the Veterans Health Administration—which oversees all health services for veterans—reallocated a total of $1.43 billion in ARPA funding that it received to OIT for IT-related services, such as providing “sustainment support for VHA IT projects that were initiated due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

In addition to supporting expanded IT and digital operations during the pandemic, OIT also established an information technology governance council in March 2020 to “review proposed obligations of supplemental funds related to information technology.” GAO noted in its report that OIT officials said the council “allowed flexibility in VA’s COVID-19 response while maintaining controls and oversight over the obligation and expenditure of supplemental funds.”

“For example, once COVID-19 supplemental funds were allocated to OIT, its governance council reviewed justifications for proposed obligations,” the report noted. “After this review, the governance council made a final decision on whether or not to provide funding based on the justification provided.”

GAO provided VA with a draft copy of its report, and the department provided technical comments that were incorporated into the final version.