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House lawmakers press VA on $624-million scheduling system

Marine Corps veteran Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., said it is “unbelievable” that the VA is contemplating building its own scheduling system instead of purchasing it from a commercial seller.

JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 11, 2016

WASHINGTON – Two House lawmakers say the Department of Veterans Affairs is preparing to overspend by unnecessarily creating its own $624-million scheduling system to ease persistent delays in veteran health care.

The VA project has been underway for more than a year but systems that could schedule vets for doctor’s appointments and other care through the department – on site and via the Internet – are already commercially available for what is likely a smaller price, said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., and Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass. They introduced a bill this month that requires the VA to test out a commercially available system for 18 months as part of a pilot project.

The VA’s electronic scheduling system was designed in the 1980s, an antique by technology standards, and was thrust into the spotlight in 2014 when it was revealed the department was manipulating it to hide long wait times for veterans seeking health care.

“It is really encouraging the VA to look at off-the-shelf products that are available in the private sector,” said McMorris Rodgers, who is a cofounder of the House’s military family caucus.

She said wait times at VA hospitals and clinics increased in 2015 instead of going down following the scandal two years ago and employing available technology would lead to faster appointments and better results.

McMorris Rodgers and Moulton said they were recently briefed by VA officials on plans for a new $624-million scheduling system. But they were left concerned it will not cut down on department bureaucracy or increase transparency in scheduling, two obstacles to veterans getting care.

For example, the VA’s planned system does not integrate the Veterans Choice card, which was created to ease long waits for care by giving veterans access to outside providers, McMorris Rodgers said.

Moulton, a freshman lawmaker and former Marine Corps infantry officer who served in Iraq, still uses the VA system since being elected to Congress and has had his own bad experiences trying to get needed care.

“Just getting through to speak with someone is almost impossible,” he said.

Moulton said it is “unbelievable” that the VA is contemplating building its own system instead of purchasing it from a commercial seller.

VA spokeswoman Walinda West said the department has already made “significant progress.”

In August, the VA awarded the $624-million contract for creating its new medical appointment scheduling system to Systems Made Simple, a subsidiary of the major defense contractor Lockheed Martin.

“With the award of this contract, VA will be able to acquire and provide user-friendly tools intended to make it easier for veterans to schedule an appointment, receive reminders about upcoming appointments, and help clinicians see all of a veterans’ upcoming appointments,” West wrote in an email.

tritten.travis@stripes.com
Twitter: @Travis_Tritten