(U.S. Senate) – The Senate unanimously passed U.S. Senators Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Marsha Blackburn’s (R-Tenn.) bipartisan bill to improve the management and execution of information technology (IT) programs and projects at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The bill now heads to the House for consideration.
The Senators’ Department of Veterans Affairs IT Reform Act would bring more accountability and oversight to the office within VA charged with delivering IT projects critical to providing care and benefits to millions of veterans and their families across the country. The bill requires increased transparency into proposed and current IT spending on critical programs for veterans at VA while also directing VA to institute a number of outstanding Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommendations related to planning, management, and operation of its Office of Information and Technology (OIT).
“When veterans can’t access the benefits and care they earned because the VA’s IT systems don’t work, are over budget, or take years to come online—well, we’ve got to do something about it,” said Tester, Ranking Member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. “I’m glad that my Senate colleagues worked quickly to pass our bipartisan bill that will hold VA more accountable to get veterans and VA’s dedicated employees the IT systems they were promised, regardless of whether they’re in Big Sandy or the Big Apple.”
“There is no time to waste when it comes to bringing our veterans’ care into the 21st century,” said Blackburn. “Congress appropriated the proper funds for updated technology, and those funds need to be used responsibly by the VA. I am pleased my Senate colleagues understand the urgent need for the VA improve its management of information technology projects and investments, and am hopeful this bill will be quickly passed by the House.”
For years, VA has been challenged to deliver and upgrade its IT projects and systems on time and on budget, hampering the efficient delivery of medical care and benefits to veterans. Federal IT programs have remained on the GAO’s High-Risk List since 2015. In addition, VA received low compliance scores in many areas of the annual Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) scorecard.
The Department of Veterans Affairs IT Reform Act addresses these and other shortcomings by:
- Requiring VA to improve their IT budgeting processes by reporting significant budget variances and providing mitigation plans, creating expenditure plans for IT projects, and improving the accuracy and detail of the annual President’s Budget request for VA IT.
- Prompting VA to fully implement OMB’s Data Center Consolidation Initiative – improving VA’s FITARA compliance.
- Instituting a number of outstanding GAO recommendations to improve OIT’s management and operation.
For fiscal year 2021, VA requested $4.9 billion for IT— up from $4.3 billion enacted levels for fiscal year 2020. Tester has long pressed the Department to address key issues regarding VA's IT budget, stating that it does not clearly prioritize VA’s needs for IT funding for benefits, health care and memorial affairs projects. VA’s under-investment in and poor management of various IT programs has led to delays in delivering critical IT projects - including the Caregivers Program expansion, passed as part of the VA MISSION Act, and the Forever G.I. Bill. At a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing this week, Tester raised concerns with VA officials regarding telehealth challenges facing veterans in rural America both during and after the COVID-19 crisis.
Text of the Senators’ bill can be found HERE.