VA trying to shake off IT problems, CIO says

CIO details improvements to VA's tecnology

Not too long ago, the Department of Veterans Affairs weathered a series of scandals caused by data breaches and mismanaged programs. Seeking a new way forward, the department brought on Roger Baker as CIO in early 2009 with a mandate to transform VA's management of its information technology systems.

Two years later, Baker said at a recent industry event, the department has made progress.

One key area of improvement has been customer service. Over the last 21 months, VA has moved from only meeting 30 percent of its IT-related milestones to an 80 percent success rate, Baker said. The VA is using an online measurement system to track and meet its customer-service goals, which has been a big help in improving outcomes.

One dramatic success has come in the department's data processing and health records management system, the Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture. VistA used to suffer from excessive system downtime, but with better operational standards, it has achieved 99.5 percent uptime, he said. System downtime is now measured in minutes, not hours, he said.

The department has implemented new processes and efficiencies that helped reduce spending in the 2009 and 2010 fiscal years. Baker noted that this is not an end goal, but a side effect of an increasing IT capability within the VA.

Baker killed some underperforming programs in order to put the agency's resources to work on others that could be turned around. VA’s online pharmacy tools and the New GI Bill program were rescued from potential oblivion.

The GI Bill recovery was particularly satisfying because at one point Congress was convinced that it was beyond hope. With some radical re-engineering, Baker said, the revamped system is due to be fully implemented by August 1 this year.

Baker said the department's technology future will be very different from the past, in no small part because young doctors now starting their careers with VA have all grown up with wireless technologies such as iPhones and iPads. Many of them are using applications such as Google Docs and Yahoo Calendar to keep track of patients because they are frustrated with the systems used in VA hospitals.

This creates security issues due to the vulnerability of personal data on wireless systems. But Baker explained that there is a need for flexible data systems. He said that it is quickly reaching a point were staff who are used to technology will need to embrace commercial systems to help with their work. “There will be no governmental requirements for these things,” he warned.

Baker explained that the government is quickly becoming marginalized by technology from private industry because of its ubiquity. Cost and security are ongoing issues, but functionality is needed to provide efficient service, he said. The challenge is finding the right balance to support medical staff.

“I’ve got to figure out how to turn no into yes,” he said.

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