VHA's $8.5M Emergency Comms System Largely Inoperable, OIG Finds

An Inspector General audit estimates more than four-fifths of the Veterans Affairs Department's emergency communications network doesn't work.

An Inspector General audit estimates more than four-fifths of the Veterans Affairs Department's emergency communications network doesn't work. teekid via Getty Images

An audit conducted by VA’s Office of Inspector General found that an estimated 80% of the emergency communications systems deployed at 184 VA medical facilities are “not fully operational.”

The Veterans Health Administration ​​lacks a functional, ready-to-operate resilient high-frequency radio network—or RHFRN—for its medical facilities to use in the event of crippling emergencies or disasters, according to a report released by the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Inspector General on Thursday. 

The audit was conducted after OIG received a hotline compliant in March 2020 that “alleged waste, fraud and abuse had occurred in the approval and implementation of the RHFRN system,” and included “specific complaints about the lack of required maintenance for the RHFRN radio at the VA Butler Healthcare System in Pennsylvania.”

VA awarded a five-year contract to an outside vendor in January 2015 “to provide high-frequency voice and data communication and linkage to telephone networks enabling radio-to-telephone communication.” The department ultimately paid the contractor more than $8.5 million to provide the service. OIG’s report did not name the contractor, and a press representative for the office said they could not confirm the company’s identity.

Prior to that contract, most of the nation’s VA medical centers lacked “last-resort” communications systems that could be used in the event the facilities experienced power outages or infrastructure damage as a result of an emergency or disaster. By early 2020, OIG said, the contractor was “required to furnish, install, test and certify a fully functional RHFRN at approximately 200 VHA facilities nationwide and provide training for VA staff.”

OIG’s audit, however, noted that VHA’s Office of Emergency Management—or OEM—reported that there were only 184 VA medical facilities with a RHFRN. Of this total, OIG’s audit team randomly sampled a selection of sites to “determine the equipment’s operational status using the contract definition,” and ascertain “whether these facilities have trained staff capable of operating the equipment in the event of an emergency.”

“The OIG found 17 of the 21 sampled sites could not contact another VA facility via high-frequency radio on the day of the OIG virtual site visit,” the report said. “Based on its sample, the audit team estimated that approximately 150 of 184 of the RHFRN sites throughout the nation (82%) were not fully operational.”

The audit’s findings came after a July 2021 survey of VA facilities with RHFRN radios conducted by OEM and the department’s Office of Information and Technology identified roughly 60% of the sites as operational—although Thursday’s report noted that “there were a total of 169 responses to the survey.” OIG said that, after its “statistical sample of RHFRN sites,” its audit team “found that VA’s data overstated the degree to which the network was operational.”

OIG’s report also noted that, as of October 2022, OEM “reported that approximately 145 of the 184 sites (79%) have not made any successful communication since January 1, 2022.”

The audit blamed “inadequate acceptance, installation, training, oversight and system support” across OEM and “at multiple levels of VHA” for contributing to usability issues with the RHFRN. 

“As of March 2022, OEM had not finalized the VHA high-frequency radio operations plan, and there is no evidence that OEM distributed templates to facility directors as required by VHA Directive 0320.09,” the audit said. “This potentially had a cascading effect, as medical center directors from at least 15 sites could not fulfill their responsibility under the same directive to develop facility-specific high-frequency radio standard operating procedures using OEM-supplied templates.”

In addition, OIG said that OEM “did not adequately oversee the acceptance and installation of the RHFRN.” The audit team found, for instance, that “OEM and site personnel did not adequately oversee the installation of the radio systems,” that employees did not appropriately oversee testing to verify system operability and that OEM “did not sufficiently monitor the training that the contractor provided to radio operators at each site.” OIG’s audit team also noted that it found no evidence that the contractor conducted a survey “assessing the effectiveness of the training,” despite it being stipulated in the contract. 

Additionally, OIG noted that “after spending over $8.5 million, VA is considering a second contract to assess, repair, complete and maintain the RHFRN.” 

“Until this system is fully operational, VHA will continue to remain vulnerable to national or local emergencies that impair normal communication methods, placing employees, veterans and others in unnecessary danger,” the audit warned.

OIG issued six recommendations, including that “VA medical facilities maintain enough trained staff to operate the network; VHA clarify the program office responsible for the network and finalize the operations plan; and OEM outline requirements for acceptance if additional equipment is purchased, issue guidance about where radios should be installed and monitored and ensure sites can obtain repairs for network equipment.”

OEM and VA officials concurred with OIG’s recommendations.