The Department of Veterans Affairs faced congressional scrutiny on Thursday for delayed payments to veterans following the passage of the Colmery Act, also known as the Forever GI Bill, as House members called on VA IT officials to explain how the system could not handle the additional workloads and criticized the department’s response.
“It seems like the root cause has been IT infrastructure, and getting the right IT solutions and managing the IT systems effectively,” said Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Texas, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Economic Opportunity subcommittee.
“While I’m certainly not an IT expert, I cannot understand how 15 months after this law was passed, we are sitting here asking these questions,” Arrington added. “It’s also clear that updating and modernizing the half a dozen systems needed to complete a GI Bill claim has not been a priority for the department. As a result, student veterans are paying the price for VA ignoring and putting band-aids on this problem.”
VA officials and representatives from contractor Booz Allen Hamilton explained the issue at hand, and why the IT infrastructure had failed.
“The Forever GI Bill requires we develop new software which changes the way the monthly housing allowance is paid. The development and deployment of the new software has not gone as planned,” said Dr. Paul Lawrence, under secretary for benefits at the VA. “We are planning for the possibility that we may not have the software ready for the spring semester,” he added.
Richard Crowe, senior vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton, described how his company’s software development team had to adjust 60 percent of the code to meet the changes with the Forever GI Bill.
“From Booz Allen’s vantage point, two of the primary factors driving the timeframe for implementation of the revised rules have been the heavy and necessary reliance on other legacy IT systems outside of our control, as well as the old age of the underlying IT systems,” said Crowe. “As a result, we have had to program an elaborate set of interfaces to draw from these different and dated systems.”
However, committee members pointed to previous IT modernization funding efforts, and questioned why legacy systems remain in the infrastructure.
“In the reporting that I read in the Washington Post, the spokesman for the VA blames the VA committee. He said we have not funded the VA’s IT needs. If that’s the case, I’m happy and hopeful that we can work with the chairman and the chairman of the full committee to introduce something on an emergency basis to get the funding necessary, but my understanding is that we had authorized and appropriated what the VA had asked for,” said ranking member Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas.
“We have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on IT solutions. Why are those (systems) still problematic? If we’ve given the resources to the VA to implement IT solutions that work, so that we can get these good, bipartisan reform fixes and solutions to help our veterans, what do you need, if it’s not the hundreds of millions of dollars that the taxpayers have so generously given you to serve the veterans?” Arrington asked Bill James, deputy assistant secretary for development and operations in VA’s Office of Information Technology.
“We shifted from broad modernization to the Colmery Act because we had a deadline to achieve,” James responded.
Members also noted a key absence from the hearing.
“Why isn’t the head of VA IT here?” asked Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., referring to acting VA CIO Camilo Sandoval. “Why isn’t he here to explain or take accountability or take responsibility for this failure? He’s the guy where the buck stops. I don’t understand why he’s not here.”
With the spring semester approaching, the issue threatens to have a large impact once again.
“Right now, given where we are in the testing process, and our inability to understand exactly when the testing will be complete, I’m estimating…that we will be processing manually and we will not have done those reconciliations yet,” said Lawrence. However, he noted that he did not expect the same delays.