VA management changes pay off

The Veterans Affairs department gave its CIO more power and centralized authority to improve its track record with IT projects.

The Veterans Affairs Department has had uneven success in implementing information technology projects. Its electronic health records system has worked well and earned praise from outside groups, but other IT projects have run over budget, fallen behind schedule or simply failed.

Paperless delivery

The Veterans Services Network (VetsNet) is a suite of five applications intended to improve the processing of compensation and pension claims. It also will eventually incorporate Virtual VA, an existing system that supports some paperless processing already. VetsNet will move the Veterans Affairs Department’s existing benefits system to a more modern computing infrastructure.

In September 2008, VA chose EDS as the lead integrator on the project. In February, the agency awarded an independent verification and validation contract to Innovative Management Concepts.

An application developer, which VA will choose in November, will release multiple technical data packages, including:

  • An enterprise Web portal for veterans and VA employees.
  • A consolidated view of data across various systems.
  • Forms that veterans can submit through the portal.
  • A correspondence function to generate, print, send and record template-based communications.
  • A messaging and workflow service to manage data, images and work items among users and underlying system components.

To improve that record, VA reorganized to centralize IT authority under its chief information officer and is beginning to see better results, according to agency officials.

VA also has adopted the approach of implementing IT projects incrementally to ensure they stay on budget and on schedule, said Stephen Warren, VA’s acting assistant secretary at the Office of Information and Technology and CIO.

The department is meeting deadlines for critical projects, such as the Post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits program, by developing and deploying the project in smaller chunks than it once would have. VA is first using updated versions of existing systems so it can take a disciplined approach to implementing the final system, Warren said at a recent Senate hearing.

“We are incrementally developing it and testing it on a routine basis, sometimes daily, but certainly on a weekly basis instead of at the end,” he said at a hearing held by the Senate Veterans Committee March 25.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill law provides educational assistance to veterans, members of the National Guard and selected reserves on active duty on or after Sept. 11, 2001. VA must have he system operational by Aug. 1. The new law is different from the current benefits program because it makes payments not only to the veteran, but directly to the educational institution for tuition, housing and books, Warren said.

The new benefits program has a better chance of success because of VA’s IT reorganization, said Robert Howard, who was VA’s CIO during the reorganization to put more power into the office. He is now senior vice president of FemmeComp.

“With centralization, you have much better focus, collaboration and exchange of ideas between various administrations,” he said. With the new law, VA has to continue to improve the legacy systems, upon which new programs rely, while modernizing the applications as quickly as possible, Howard said.

VA is the only large federal agency where the CIO has final say over IT across the landscape. With the reorganization that began in 2005, the CIO gained authority over IT development, budget and staff of the department’s benefits, health and burial administrations.

A security breach lent urgency to the reorganization. In May 2006, someone stole a laptop computer from the home of an employee. On the computer were the names, Social Security numbers and birth dates of every living veteran who served from 1975 through 2006.

That incident accelerated the efforts already underway, as VA officials determined that the agency needed to fix management gaps in information security and IT project implementation.

VA also had recently failed at its pilot deployment of the Core Financial and Logistical System at its Bay Pines Medical Center in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 2004, after spending $342 million.

Now, centralization lets VA move benefits delivery into the 21st Century, Warren said. It also lets VA’s CIO to take advantage of resources from across the department for the new education benefits program managed by the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA).

“We are able to draw upon all the resources and all the knowledge to make sure that the projects that we move out on are a success,” he said. “For the new GI Bill and how we have approached it, we have changed how we are managing the project, we have changed how we’re using technologies, and we’re doing it based upon the ability to look across the department at what’s worked and what’s not worked and bring it all together.”

The centralization has permitted a more holistic view of the agency that encompasses problems and solutions, he said.

““We are now able to capitalize on the successes in any part of the department and apply it to all other parts of the department, as well as capitalize on any of the failed projects or approaches and use those lessons learned not just in that particular area but across the whole department,” he said.

The Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Atlantic (SPAWAR) is developing VA’s long-term system to process veterans’ education benefits, but it won’t be operational until December 2010, Warren said. The new system will be more automated than the current system and be built on a foundation of business rules that have been incorporated in the technology, he said. The new system would also use data integration and a well-defined service-oriented architecture, he said.

A consultant that VA hired to review its plans and procedures for putting in place the new education benefits program has validated the department’s approach, Warren said.

Keith Wilson, VA’s director of education service in the VBA and lead executive for the GI Bill program, said that because the new program has different provisions, VA had to modify its existing Benefits Delivery Network system to be ready for the Aug. 1 start date and thereafter until the SPAWAR system replaces it in December 2010.

“VA has modified this system, although aging, to support many of the changes in the benefit programs over the years, primarily because the single payment structure for the programs had not changed,” he said.

In March, VA deployed the first phase of the education benefits to be able to accept applications and electronically store eligibility and entitlement information that claims examiners enter manually from veterans’ applications for benefits, Wilson said.

VA also has implemented a secondary system that reaches into VA and Defense Department databases for information that supports a veteran’s benefits application.

In July, the second phase will add specific data elements for processing claims and performing payment calculations, he said.

Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said he was encouraged by the administration’s commitment to use IT to improve the delivery of benefits and services for veterans. The return on VA’s investments to modernize how it conducts business has been mixed, he said last week.

“VA’s IT reorganization is already starting to help veterans and more significant improvements are on the way,” Akaka said.

Centralization has also helped advance development and implementation of a single VA and DOD electronic health record (EHR) because it makes accountability very clear, said Paul Tibbits, VA’s deputy CIO for enterprise development, in remarks after an industry event sponsored by AFCEA March 26. 

DOD and VA, which already exchange pharmacy data, expect to implement a single EHR by Sept. 30 to exchange medical information on active duty service members and veterans. The departments have agreed to collaborate on a lifetime EHR that could also support disability claims and other benefits.

Howard cited efforts to make veterans health information more readily available to disability claims processors and the development of a single portal where veterans could access their information as examples of the collaboration among VA’s entities fostered by IT centralization.

“There is no way you can do that without some form of a centralized approach or at least a highly disciplined approach to get there,” Howard said. "You need to have people respond to you. In the past, response was not there to the degree it needed to be, and centralization has definitely improved that."

VA has started a Paperless Delivery of Veterans Benefits Initiative via a department infrastructure modernization and using new technology, including electronic workflow capabilities, imaging, computer-readable data and enterprise content and correspondence management, Wilson said. The effort would integrate with the Veterans Service Network, VA’s core benefits business application and payment system. VA has said its goal is to reduce the problems that accompany collecting and handling large amounts of paper and to streamline the benefits process.

VA plans to roll out the paperless delivery effort also in incremental fashion, said Scott Gaydos, applications services executive at EDS, the program's contractor.

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