VA freezes IT budget for 2011

The Veterans Affairs Department is looking at a flat level of $3.3 billion for information technology in fiscal 2011, but managed some increases for benefits automation and telemedicine.

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The Veterans Affairs Department is planning for its information technology budget to be frozen at $3.3 billion in fiscal 2011, but there are a few increases planned for IT programs such as veterans benefits automation and telemedicine.

Overall, the VA is slated for one of the largest departmental budget hikes of any department. Discretionary spending would increase to $57 billion, which is 20 percent more than the fiscal 2009 enacted amount, under President Barack Obama’s and VA’s request to Congress.

VA Chief Information Officer Roger Baker halted more than 40 IT projects for re-examination in 2009, and the strategy of continuing to review IT projects closely to ensure they meet targets will continue, according to a transcript of a VA budget presentation released Feb. 2.

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“Going now to the IT component of our budget, our funding is frozen into 2011 for information technology,” Todd Grams, the VA’s acting assistant secretary for management, said in the presentation. “That reflects our strategy ... under the leadership of Roger Baker, of bringing greater discipline and oversight to our project and program management. So we're comfortable with this freeze while we take the time to make sure that when we commit to deliver a project or program, we are delivering it on budget, we are delivering it on time and it has the functionality that our customers come to expect.”

Grams broke down the IT request in terms of its major components, including $1.3 billion for medical programs, $966 million for staffing and administration, $527 million for corporate systems, $381 million for benefits and memorial delivery, and $158 million for interagency development.

The budget request would increase support for the Veterans Benefits Administration, with the goal of reducing processing times. Funding is to rise by 27 percent in a year, Gram said. Most of the increase will go toward staffing, but it also includes funding for process re-engineering and investments in IT, he added.

Baker offered details on the VA’s move of benefits processing to paperless systems.

“We're currently working a number of pilots on the paperless system in 2010,” Baker said. “And in 2011, we have a substantial chunk of dollars in the budget -- I believe it is $145 million -- to field the new system in a number of offices between 2011 and 2012. We have a commitment to Congress to have all the paperless system, the new processes and the paperless software in the field by the end of 2012.”

Another line-item boost in 2011 is an increase of $42 million for telehealth programs. The VA has implemented a number of telehealth clinics allowing for remote monitoring of veterans’ vital signs through the uses of devices and communication systems.

Telemedicine also is one of the VA’s top priorities in its medical research budget, along with rural health and access to health, Gram said. The VA is requesting $590 million for medical research in 2011, which is a 16 percent increase over 2009 levels.

The VA is participating in a government-wide initiative to improve acquisition management. The VA’s share of that initiative is funded by $24 million, Gram said. Of the total, approximately $4 million will be budgeted for the VA to establish an office for its implementation of Homeland Security Presidential Directive-12 identity management goals in the department.

In staffing, VA anticipates rising to 288,000 full time equivalent positions in 2011, an increase of almost 6,000 positions over 2010, Gram said. About 4,000 of the additional personnel are to be devoted to addressing claims processing, while 1,200 will go for medical care.