GAO Chief ‘Hopeful’ VA Secretary Can Crack ‘High Risk’ Challenges

U.S. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, who heads the Government Accountability Office, said in congressional testimony on Wednesday he is “hopeful” that Robert Wilkie, who became the Secretary of Veterans Affairs in July 2018, will have more luck cracking the agency’s pressing problems, including IT, than his predecessors.

Dodaro’s testimony to the House Oversight and Reform Committee elaborated on GAO’s release yesterday of it latest biennial High Risk List which identifies Federal government operations “with vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, or in need of transformation to address economy, efficiency, or effectiveness challenges.”

Since 2015 the GAO list has featured “Managing Risks and Improving VA Health Care,” and this year GAO added “VA Acquisition Management” to the list.

In adding VA acquisition management this year, GAO said it identified “seven contracting challenges for VA, such as outdated acquisition regulations and policies, lack of an effective medical supplies procurement strategy, and inadequate acquisition training.”

The report released this week recaps VA’s risk management and healthcare improvement issues that problems that GAO has identified, which include: “ambiguous policies and inconsistent processes; (2) inadequate oversight and accountability; (3) IT challenges; (4) inadequate training for VA staff; and (5) unclear resource needs and allocation priorities.”

“Given the importance of VHA’s [Veterans Health Administration’s] mission, coupled with its lack of progress in addressing its high-risk designation, we continue to be concerned about VHA’s ability to ensure its resources are being used effectively and efficiently to improve veterans’ timely access to safe and high-quality health care,” the new report says.

However, GAO also gave a positive nod to Secretary Wilkie, saying that efforts at VA prior to his arrival were “impeded by leadership stability,” but that since taking office, the secretary “has demonstrated his commitment to addressing the department’s high-risk designation by, among other things, creating an office to direct an integrated, focused high-risk approach and communicating to VA leaders the importance of addressing our recommendations.”

Dodaro’s testimony on Wednesday took a similar tone, while also targeting the agency’s IT efforts as areas for improvement.

Asked by Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., about problems at VA, Dodaro said the agency has “some of the most serious management challenges in the Federal government,” but added it makes sense to “give the current secretary some time … I am hopeful in this case that we will progress.”

“But it will be some time before they can right the ship there,” Dodaro said. “The VA to this day does not yet have a good plan for addressing why we put them on the High Risk List,” adding that GAO is talking about that with the agency.

He also said it was problematic that VA had multiple CIOs in recent years, but called it a “good step” that the agency now has a permanent CIO – James Gfrerer was sworn in in early January as assistant secretary for the Office of Information and Technology at the agency.

Dodaro said that VA’s $4 billion IT budget was one of the largest in the Federal government, and added, “they need the right kind of workforce and systems and processes.”

He also noted VA’s undertaking of a massive project to create an electronic health records system that matches with that of the Defense Department, and said that project was going to take “many years,” and would be helped by stable leadership at the agency.

Finally, Dodaro said VA’s failure to improve over the years has not been “from a lack of resources, in my opinion.” He added, “They have some of the most entrenched management problems I have found in government, and I have been around for a long time.”

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