- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2014

Acting Veteran Affairs Secretary Sloan Gibson assured Congress last week that the VA is working hard to replace its “antiquated” scheduling system, but the Obama administration first received clear notice more than five years ago about the need for an overhaul to reduce patient wait times.

“Excessive wait times are addressed by moving to a resource-based management system,” Veterans Affairs technology officials told the Obama-Biden transition team in a briefing report that included mention of VA’s “schedule replacement” project.

The Washington Times obtained the report through the Freedom of Information Act.

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More than five years later, VA officials are hard pressed to explain their lack of progress.

It has taken the still-unfolding VA scandal into manipulated patient wait times — a metric the VA has used to award executive bonuses — to shine a light on the failings of the current system, which Mr. Gibson called “outdated” in recent congressional testimony.

“VA has been trying — and failing — to replace its outpatient scheduling system since 2000, wasting nearly $130 million in the process,” Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, told The Times when asked about the delays.

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“Because VA acquisition officials have proven time and again they are simply too inept to guide the development of a new proprietary appointment-scheduling system in an expedient and cost-effective manner, department leaders need to look at adopting commercial technologies that are being used in the private sector,” Mr. Miller said.

VA officials declined to respond to multiple inquiries last week concerning the lack of progress on the scheduling system.

The project has spanned administrations. The briefing papers sent to the Obama transition team in 2008 noted that “application development” on the schedule replacement project already had been underway for six years.

“VA is taking a phased approach to implement the application, as the move from a 25-year-old legacy system to a new infrastructure is understandably complex,” VA officials told the incoming administration.

The briefing papers said a scheduling replacement would address excessive wait times and allow clinicians to view all patient history information across the VA.

By contrast, the current appointment system “is rigid and lacks efficiency,” IT officials noted. “Providers must maintain multiple calendars for clinical activities, extended hours or slots needed for special circumstances, such as compensation and pension examinations.”

Beyond the scheduling system, VA’s technology office also disclosed other major technology challenges across VA to the incoming administration, including serious deficiencies in the agency’s IT workforce.

“IT skill gaps, at all levels, include poor communication, change management and basic supervisory skills,” VA officials wrote.

The overall IT infrastructure is “comprised of a loose confederation of independently chosen elements without a comprehensive system engineering or architectural plan, clear standards or rigorous IT management processes,” officials wrote.

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