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Virginia tech firms offer free help to solve VA patient appointments scandal

A group of northern Virginia technology firms is offering free assistance to the Department of Veteran Affairs in solving their faulty patient appointment system - much the way the same group helped Arlington National Cemetery overcome its record-keeping scandal almost four years ago.

U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, who presented the offer to President Barack Obama in a June 3 letter, had sought and received the offer of help from the Northern Virginia Technology Council, a 1,000-member trade group. Warner also brokered the council's assistance with the cemetery in 2010.

“We can actually do something immediate to help restore some confidence. Everybody wants to stand up for our veterans. Let’s take that energy and put it to positive use,” Warner said Wednesday.

The VA, long criticized for its case backlogs and other issues, has come under renewed criticism after a recent inspector general investigation found that VA officials falsified records to hide lengthy waiting periods for veterans. The report’s finding that the agency has systemic problems that go beyond a handful of facilities led to the forced resignation last week of VA secretary Eric Shinseki.

The VA has seen a massive increase in caseloads in recent years because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an aging generation of Vietnam War-era vets and the expansion of VA-covered ailments.

Warner stressed that the tech companies would focus solely on the technical issues and business practices related to appointments and waiting periods.

There are major systemic issues within the VA that need to be addressed, but rather than try to slowly address everything, this proposal would allow a quick response to a specific problem, he said.

“Let’s fix that because what we’ve lost now is both the public’s and more importantly the veteran’s confidence,” he said. “Rather than having a government process that’s going to take forever, let’s do something that won’t cost taxpayers a dime and represents corporate citizenship at its best.”

Bobbie Kilberg, the technology council’s president and CEO, said many members are eager to lend a hand. Any firms that signs up will avoid any conflict of interest by agreeing not to bid on any possible government contracts related to system improvements, she said.

“It is an essential debt we all owe our service men and women,” Kilberg said. “As as soon as we get a response we will put out a call to our board and members... I think we will get a very very strong response.”

Warner said he expects other firms around the country also want to get involved.

Kilberg acknowledged that the issues with the VA, which has scores of facilities, will be more complex and a tougher problem than the national cemetery’s crisis.

In August 2010, the Army agreed Friday to accept the free assistance of the high-tech firms in response to a record-keeping scandal at the cemetery that arose from reports that thousands of graves are unmarked or mislabeled. Before their involvement, Army investigators found administrators had spent more than $5 million to convert the mostly paper files to digital records but had nothing to show for it. The cemetery’s two top administrators were forced to retire when the problems were exposed.

The firms proposed changes that were adopted by the Army in computerizing the cemetery’s record systems and improving its operations for dealing with families of fallen veterans.

The high-tech firms said the cemetery’s problems stemmed from an “error-prone work environment” caused by an outdated paper records system and bad management practices.

Kilberg stressed that with the VA the firms will focus on the mechanics of the appointments or business processes - not the quality of medical care.

“My assumption is that we will find it’s not just ‘Let’s find a new software for appointments.’ ” she said. “It’s the business processes...That’s very different than the medical care.”

Warner said the speed at which the firms can conduct their assessment “will depend on upon the willingness of the VA to let a fresh set of eyes look at the problem.”

The senator, who is hoping to get other senators to endorse the project, said some White House officials have expressed support but have not said if they’ll accept the offer.

Warner also asked the president to establish a nonpartisan commission to conduct what the senators said would be the first comprehensive review of the VA in two decades.

“The time has come for creation of a non-partisan, top-level commission to conduct a thoughtful and thorough examination of the VA, with a specific deadline for recommending ways that we might transform the VA into a 21st Century organization that truly keeps our nation’s commitments to its military men and women,” he wrote in his letter to Obama.

The recent VA scandal has sparked other congressional actions, including a legislation introduce by U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia and several other senator to give the VA secretary stronger authority to fire “incompetent” senior officials, and bolster efforts to hire more doctors and expand its facilities.

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