Delayed projects prompt Congress to cut VA's IT budget

Senate still praises department's program to identify and correct troubled systems that are behind schedule.

Congressional appropriations committees cut the Veterans Affairs Department's requested fiscal 2011 information technology budget, with House members saying it chose to hold back spending for some IT projects because they are behind schedule.

The Senate sliced $160 million from VA's requested $3.31 billion IT budget request, and the House cut $85 million. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies, said in a statement released on Tuesday the committee was disappointed systems development at the department continues to fall behind schedule, leaving large balances of unspent funds.

The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and VA also said in the report accompanying its version of the department's fiscal 2011 spending bill, which was released on Tuesday, that unspent IT funds from previous years were the reason it made cuts.

The Senate said VA has limited IT development spending due to the Program Management Accountability System Roger Baker, chief information officer at VA, instituted in June 2009 to help correct long-term program failures by asking customers, vendors and programmers to focus on delivering systems incrementally. The Senate said it supports the program, but still cut VA's IT budget rather than provide funds that are not needed next year.

The Senate also restricted the obligation of IT development funds until either VA Secretary Eric Shinseki or Baker submits certification letters to the House Appropriations Committee identifying the projects and programs that should receive funding in fiscal 2011 and how much.

Baker and VA's Office of Information Technology also must provide an IT expenditure report to the committees on a monthly basis, the Senate said in its version of the VA spending bill. The report should compare the project costs included in the certifications letter and provide an explanation for differences that exceed $1 million.

The Senate also wants VA to do "a better job of harnessing new technology" to speed the processing of disability claims, which in 2009 exceeded more than 1 million for the first time and are expected to increase more than 13 percent this year to almost 1.2 million.

The Senate directed VA to use a portion of the $40 million it had requested for the Veterans Benefits Administration Innovation Initiative to run a procurement for commercial off-the-shelf technology to develop a decision support system to automate VBA's ratings process.