Migration to Cloud is the ‘Wave of the Future,’ Says VA Secretary

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With numerous past Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) IT modernization efforts falling short and attracting scrutiny, the head of the department told lawmakers that VA is fully embracing the cloud during a Senate Veterans Affairs hearing today.

“What we are doing…is we are beginning to migrate our legacy systems out and bring the VA in line with the rest of America through the cloud,” said Robert Wilkie, secretary of the VA. “We now have 8,000 employees who are dedicated simply to that transition. We will ask for a bit of patience on these, but the migration to the cloud is the wave of the future, and it is the way we will maintain the trajectory VA has undergone in terms of its overall customer service.”

The move to the cloud will not come without help from the appropriators, however.

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“I told you eight months ago that the overall condition of VA’s IT system was bad. As a result of that, this committee is looking at…a massive increase in our budget–$4.2 billion I believe,” Wilkie said.

The President’s Budget includes funding to retire two legacy IT systems in FY 2020, as Sen. Johhny Isakson, R-Ga., noted.

“I want to find that damn cloud one of these days. I want to see where that thing is,” quipped Isakson.

Underlying Congress’ recent frustrations are recent reports that the decision support tool for physicians currently under development will not be ready in time for the implementation of the rest of the Mission Act, due to technical problems. Another concern for senators is the implementation of a new IT system for the VA’s Caregiver program. And failures in the recent past, like the Forever GI Bill, still cast a shadow over the department’s IT efforts.

“I’m frustrated we continue to hear about IT solutions that may not be executed properly,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. “As you know, VA has struggled for many years in the field of IT, earning a place on the GAO’s High Risk List this year again. I recently had a great meeting with [CIO] James Grferer, but there’s no OIT representation from the department here today. I hope that’s not a reflection of how this issue is being prioritized,” he added.

The witnesses from the VA acknowledged the concerns of the senators and the past failed efforts and shared the department’s commitment to improve.

Dr. Richard Stone, executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration, noted that the Mission Act’s decision support tool should be ready by the implementation date of June 6, but that the department is ready to continue the current manual process to help veterans find the right physician if the system isn’t prepared.

“There should be no increase in wait for care,” said Stone.

On the Caregivers program, Wilkie assured senators that the new IT system for the program must be certified by Wilkie himself, and he will take a close look before certifying. The system, scheduled for implementation in October, is a commercial, off-the-shelf system and will replace the manual processing of 24,000 stipends.

On the fix for the Forever GI Bill, Wilkie pointed to the need for modernized systems, which VA is implementing now.

“The reason the Forever GI Bill crashed and burned is that the directions from this committee were placed on a 40-year old IT system. It was bound to fail,” said Wilkie.

Finally, on the electronic health record modernization effort, Wilkie noted that VA will need to rebuild communications closets this summer to accommodate the pilot phase of the program in March of 2020.

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