House committee likely to cut HealtheVet funds

A House Appropriations panel has stripped funding for the Veterans Affairs Department's new hospital computing system because the agency provided no details to the lawmakers about how it would spend the money on the project, a committee spokesman said today.

The full committee is likely to follow the panel's recommendation on the project when it considers the overall $85.2.spending bill for VA programs, health care and construction on Wednesday.

The House Appropriations Military Quality of Life and Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies subcommittee recommended yesterday leaving just $11 million of the requested $311 million for VA's HealtheVet system in fiscal 2006 as part of the VA spending bill.

'It is incumbent upon the agency to provide details and substantive analysis, particularly for IT projects, about how it will spend the money it is requesting. VA has provided none,' said John Scofield, spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee. Unless something significant changes between now and Wednesday, he expects a similar outcome for HealtheVet from the full committee, he said.

The subcommittee action comes several weeks after it was revealed that a consultant's report criticized the VA system's technical development. VA did not comment on the subcommittee's action.

The chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee struck a cautionary note regarding HealtheVet, which would cost $3.5 billion over 10 years.

'I am a fiscal hawk and I want to get it right from the start so that we don't waste money. At the same time I want today's veterans to enjoy full access to the best medical systems and technology available. But we must do that within our means and within our budget,' said Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

HealtheVet is a Web-based system designed to replace VA's legacy Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture, or VistA, program, an electronic medical records and clinical care system used throughout VA's 1,000 plus medical facilities. VA plans to re-host, enhance or re-engineer VistA and other current health information applications to process on the new platform.

VA CIO Robert McFarland commissioned Carnegie Mellon University's Software Engineering Institute last year to conduct a technical review of HealtheVet to identify the project's risks before proceeding to system development. SEI found many, to the point the project may not be viable as originally planned.

Disclosure of the HealtheVet study followed VA's shelving of its $372 million Core Financial and Logistics System, or CoreFLS, last year because the pilot deployment did not work properly at VA's Bay Pines, Fla., hospital. As a result of lessons learned from the CoreFLS failures, McFarland sought independent validation and verification of the HealtheVet plans before beginning development.

'The more problems you find up front, before you even lay pen to paper or write a line of code, that's good,' McFarland has said.

The combination of the SEI evaluation and the CoreFLS failures led to the House Veterans Affairs Committee recommending to withhold the $311 million request for HealtheVet in the fiscal 2006 budget until questions about the system's management and operability problems are resolved.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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