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David A. Powner, the Government Accountability Office's Director of IT Management Issues, testifies during a hearing on Capitol Hill before the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs on Feb. 7, 2017, as members were assessing the VA's progress and continuing challenges in the information technology sector.

David A. Powner, the Government Accountability Office's Director of IT Management Issues, testifies during a hearing on Capitol Hill before the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs on Feb. 7, 2017, as members were assessing the VA's progress and continuing challenges in the information technology sector. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

David A. Powner, the Government Accountability Office's Director of IT Management Issues, testifies during a hearing on Capitol Hill before the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs on Feb. 7, 2017, as members were assessing the VA's progress and continuing challenges in the information technology sector.

David A. Powner, the Government Accountability Office's Director of IT Management Issues, testifies during a hearing on Capitol Hill before the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs on Feb. 7, 2017, as members were assessing the VA's progress and continuing challenges in the information technology sector. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

Rep. David P. Roe, R-Tenn., Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs listens to testimony during a hearing on Capitol Hill on Feb. 7, 2017, as members were assessing the VA's progress and continuing challenges in the information technology sector.

Rep. David P. Roe, R-Tenn., Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs listens to testimony during a hearing on Capitol Hill on Feb. 7, 2017, as members were assessing the VA's progress and continuing challenges in the information technology sector. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

Chief Information Officer for the Veterans Affairs' Office of Information and Technology Rob C. Thomas, II, second left, testifies on Feb. 7, 2017, during a hearing on Capitol Hill as members of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs were assessing the VA's progress and continuing challenges in the IT sector. Also testifying were at left Bradley Houston, the VA's Director of Office of Business Integration, Veterans Benefits Administration; Jennifer S. Lee, the VA's Deputy Under Secretary for Health for Policy and Services, Veterans Health Administration; and David A. Powner, the GAO's Director, IT Management Issues.

Chief Information Officer for the Veterans Affairs' Office of Information and Technology Rob C. Thomas, II, second left, testifies on Feb. 7, 2017, during a hearing on Capitol Hill as members of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs were assessing the VA's progress and continuing challenges in the IT sector. Also testifying were at left Bradley Houston, the VA's Director of Office of Business Integration, Veterans Benefits Administration; Jennifer S. Lee, the VA's Deputy Under Secretary for Health for Policy and Services, Veterans Health Administration; and David A. Powner, the GAO's Director, IT Management Issues. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON – A House committee pledged Tuesday to closely oversee changes in technology at the Department of Veterans Affairs, after the agency has spent billions of dollars in recent years patching a decades-old system.

David Powner of the Government Accountability Office told the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on Tuesday that information technology at the VA was deemed “high risk” and in need of congressional oversight. For fiscal 2017, the VA is set to spend $4.3 billion on information technology, $2.5 billion of which will go toward maintaining systems that are “old, inefficient and difficult to maintain,” he said.

The VA ranks fourth in the federal government in information technology spending behind the Department of Defense, Health and Human Services and Department of Homeland Security.

The agency has cited old technology as a reason veterans have suffered long waits in scheduling health care appointments, as well as long waits in receiving disability and pension compensation.

In 2009, the VA terminated an update to its medical scheduling system after spending $127 million in nine years. The goal had been to eliminate errors in scheduling and long waits for veterans seeking treatment. Powner said the project could “best be characterized as a failure.”

“Veterans are getting to the point where they’re frustrated, and -- whether it’s scheduling, whether it's electronic medical records, whether it's benefits payments or smoothing out how we do the GI Bill -- all of those things fall under the umbrella of [information technology],” said Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., the top Democrat on the committee. “It’s the fundamental piece that ties all of the aspects of the VA together.”

Walz and committee chairman Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., said they were committed to making certain new technology was in place at the VA this year.

Lawmakers, Powner and some veterans organizations advocated Tuesday that the VA switch to a commercial provider, rather than spending more money to update Vista, its current health information system.

Rob Thomas, acting assistant secretary for information technology at the VA, said the agency was waiting for a new VA secretary to be confirmed before making a decision.

Later on Tuesday, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee unanimously approved the nomination of David Shulkin to be VA secretary. He’s expected to be confirmed by the full Senate, though it remains uncertain when a vote will be scheduled.

During his confirmation hearing Feb. 1, Shulkin said the VA needed a new scheduling system.

“We still haven’t given our employees the tools to do their jobs well,” Shulkin said.

wentling.nikki@stripes.com Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.
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