Congress wants more oversight over VA’s plans to implement automation

The Department of Veterans Affairs says it's had some major successes using automation to speed up its disability claims process. But if VA is moving into a wor...

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The Department of Veterans Affairs says it’s had some major successes using automation to speed up its disability claims process. But if VA is moving into a world of automation, Congress wants to help guide it. Legislation the House passed last month would require the department to adhere to a list of principles in future automation projects. And to lay out a five-year plan for each major IT modernization project in the Veterans Benefits Administration. California Congressman Mark Takano, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, talked with Federal News Network’s Jared Serbu on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin about some of the issues Congress wants to keep tabs on.

Interview transcript:

Mark Takano: You know, I think the concerns that I have are that we make the job of a benefits manager or claims manager as unburdensome as possible, that they’re not stuck with tedium, that any kind of tasks that can be automated, should be automated. But in my experience, what we really want to do is making sure that the time that claims managers have is not spent on tedium, but it’s spent with veterans in a quality way. And I’ve noticed since the pandemic, we’re trying to rise to non-pandemic and where people are flying more, even with pretty good elite status as someone who flies around from Washington to California, I call up, and I didn’t reach a person. Now I reached a recording that says, if you want the option to call back in three hours, and I’m like, man, I got elite status. What is this? And here’s my point. I mean, ultimately, we want a VA where a veteran feels like they’ve got elite status, that it’s that they’re not being treated like they’re treated everywhere else. Dealing with a claim with VA, for too many veterans is frustrating, it can be long. But in order to make that experience better for veterans, we need claims managers that can give them that time that can talk to them on the phone. And in order to do that, we need more claims managers. We also need technology that makes those claims managers as efficient and able to fulfill with dispatch their responsibilities. I’m very hopeful that this monumental bill called the Honoring Our PACT Act, which is going to enable 3.5 million veterans to become eligible for VA medical care, that’s going to add to the already existing job of VBA employees, not to mention the 23 presumptive illnesses that are also going to figure into all of this. So I don’t envision the need for more technology at VBA is about replacing employees. It’s about facing the tremendous need for more employees and making those employees as effective as they can be.

Jared Serbu: Having people do the tasks that actually do require people. Based on what VA has done so far, I mean, they seem pretty pleased with how their automation pilots have gone, so far, based on their numbers, they’ve managed to take average claims processing time down from about 100 days down to two, have you heard different things that give you pause or concerns with how things are going so far on the automation front specifically?

Mark Takano: I haven’t seen anything come across my desk different than that. I’m happy to hear VA is feeling like they’ve made progress and some of their pilots, I’m gonna be curious to see evidence of that. And, of course, if they’re having success, I would encourage VA to do more of these expand and generalize these pilots. But I do know this secretary was happy that we put actual money in the PACT act for technology. I got a little apprehension from the government employees on it. And I’ve told them, “look, I’m optimistic that this bill is going to pass”. I’m also very mindful that we’re going to be asking a lot more of VBA. We’re not going to lose employees, we’re not going to actually lose people, people are gonna be able to work. We need to put more people to work. And we need to make sure that we’re going to be able to meet the pending demand, the demand that’s going to arise because of the passage of this bill.

Jared Serbu: The other legislation that requires VA to produce a five-year plan on all of its planned it investments in VBA. It’s pretty expansive, it requires this plan on I think basically any it modernization that they’re going to do not just on the automation front. Is that because of any specific concerns that you have, that the house might have about VBA? Is it just a reflection of ongoing frustrations with how VA is pulled off large IT projects?

Mark Takano: I think first of all, let’s remember that VA is the second largest federal department, second only to DoD. We got like 400-450,000 employees, everything we try to implement, everything we try to improve at VA requires IT. So when we changed the GI Bill that required an adjustment in IT, the caregiver program, that was a huge, significant new benefit that we created with the mission act, the implementation of the caregiver benefit, I mean, it’s been hampered by IT. That IT has not been in place, I think the experience that members of Congress have is like, the VA is just got so many different things going on. And that IT is always a, something happens with the IT portion of it. So I can just tick off a few of the IT issues that we’re looking at, I mean, the  integration of the VA, and DoD medical workers. That’s one huge multi-billion dollar project that I’ve been from the day one apprehensive about as a sole contractor. My predecessor, Phil Roe, actually created a whole technology modernization subcommittee to do oversight over it. I continued that practice. And we struggled and made sure we staffed it up. The VA also, in the last administration, we had trouble with making sure we got a confirmed CIO, chief information officer, on board. IT is critical to whenever we want to change something or do anything big, IT is one of the things that can impede implementation. That’s why we put money, actually authorized money, in the PACT act. That’s an ambitious new piece of legislation that’s been called by the press as one of the big deals that the President and Congress got done. It is a big deal. And then look, I’ve done things in the bill to try and like not foist all 3.5 million newly eligible veterans all on the VA at once. We kind of phase them in. So we’ve sort of given VA time to ramp up. But we also give them the resources to ramp up. You know, we say we expect more hires, we also expect that you try to automate as many of the processes that could be automated to do that.  But I’ve just done my 10 years on this policy area. I’ve just experienced time after time, something going on with IT.

Jared Serbu: Well, let me just raise one other big multibillion dollar system that you didn’t bring up, which is the defense medical logistics support system. For listeners this is a large back-end IT system that the VA borrowed from DoD. From what we understand there’s already been an internal recommendation from VA that that system be shut down because it has worked so poorly in the early going. I know you, your ranking member and your counterparts in the Senate have also asked VA to shut it down in a letter back in January. I’m just curious if you can give us any updates on where that all stands. If you’ve gotten any satisfactory answers from VA?

Mark Takano: I remember when it happened. I mean,  I remember where the criticism was, that employees were out there purchasing things on credit cards. And the Washington, DC VA was like, they had to reschedule surgeries because they didn’t know what was in the inventories. I think Secretary Wilkie just he came from DoD, I could see their logic. But as you dug deeper, there was a lot of reasons why, just assuming the DoD processes and methods weren’t gonna work. And that’s kind of what we’re our oversight uncovered. So if you want to know about the plans and processes and why you want VA to  give us five-year plans, this is why. I mean, I want to  get the management, the higher management at VA to understand that they’ve got to get their arms around all these different IT projects. Some of them are large, some of them not so large, but all of them are critical. And I’m constantly asking, Do you need more resources? More resources? They tell me the most recent answer was no, except for the PACT act. They said they appreciated all the money that went into the automation there. But always a concern. You know, IT is just one of those things that for somebody who’s not an IT specialist, you’re always kind of wondering whether or not you got the right program going or whether you’re being sold a bill of goods.  It’s not going to not gonna work out. I was just in a hearing yesterday with Kurt DelBene, who was formerly a very high up executive with Microsoft, and who fixed or led the team that fixed it. I feel very comfortable with him at the helm as CIO. We talked a lot about about the national cybersecurity issues in VA, and we do a lot of interface with with DoD. And one of my big concerns there is that we definitely need less consultants and more of our own in-house employees. And the big challenge there is, of course competing with the private sector for these employees to actually retain these employees. And so that was part of our discussion yesterday in oversight. So, as chairman, I’m always kind of wondering about how do we reduce that ratio of consultants to employees? And Mr. DelBene’s answer was partly that we need to make sure that whoever in VA is managing all these projects, we need maybe more of those, we may not be able to totally offset the consultants with our own employees, but we can certainly get better-equipped team leaders who do work for VA to deal with these contractors.

Jared Serbu: That’s California Congressman Mark Takano, the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

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