Doing Business With Department of Veterans Affairs

General info: Dept. of VA<@VM>The CIO file: Robert McFarland

Things to note

Doing business with VA starts with the "Partners" page on its Web site ( There is information here for all kinds of business needs the agency has. Specific technology information can be found under "Procurement of Hardware and Software" (, which also features a link to the Office of Information and Technology ( On this Web site, check out the IT Capital Planning link (

According to VA information, there are 25 million living veterans. Nearly three of every four served during a war or official period of hostility. About 70 million people, or a quarter of the nation's population, potentially are eligible for VA benefits and services.

Department of Veterans Affairs

810 Vermont Ave. NW

Washington, DC 20420

(202) 27305400

Founded: March 15, 1989 (It succeeded the Veterans Administration, which was founded July 21, 1930.)

Secretary: Anthony Principi

Employees: 219,7000

What it does: Veterans Affairs provides federal benefits to veterans and their dependents. It is the second largest cabinet department and operates nationwide programs for health care, financial assistance and burial benefits. More than 6.8 million veterans were enrolled in the VA health care system as of October 2002.

Major subagencies: VA is made up of three major organizations: the National Cemetery Administration, which oversees VA national cemeteries and burial benefits; Veterans Benefits Administration, which runs benefits and services for veterans and their families; and Veterans Health Administration, which offers medical, surgical and rehabilitative care. Nationwide, VA has 163 hospitals, 850 ambulatory care and community clinics and 137 nursing homes.

Number crunching

2005 budget request: $67.7 billion

2004 budget: $62.1 billion

An increase of $5.6 billion is sought in the fiscal 2005 budget, mainly for health care and disability compensation.

Robert McFarland

Susan Whitney-Wilkerson

Full title: Assistant Secretary for Information and Technology, Chief Information Officer

Took the job: Jan. 30

Hometown: Austin, Texas

Home now: Washington

Family: Wife, Susan. Children are grown and about.

Hobbies: Snow skiing, fly fishing, huge college football fan, especially of Notre Dame, Army, Louisiana State

Last book read: "The Teeth of the Tiger" by Tom Clancy

Alma mater: Bachelor of science degree in business management from LeTourneau University

WT: How is the technology mission of Veterans Affairs different from that of other agencies?

McFarland: I spent 33 years in the commercial sector, so my perspective is probably different. I can tell you this is an organization that is trying very hard to be veteran-centric, and trying to change our IT to be that as well. That's our real goal, to provide tools that make the VA's mission more veteran-centric.

WT: Can you give me an example of that?

McFarland: For example, the VA has three large organizations: health care, benefits and cemetery. In times past, veterans would have to go from one place to another and sometimes register more than once, depending on the benefits they wanted.

We're now trying to build a single registration and eligibility system so you can come in and register with us once, and let that carry over so you don't have to register at multiple locations for multiple benefits.

The organization has grown up over the years with very different missions, so it's understandable that there were differences. Obviously health care is one thing, education is another, and mortgage loans are another.

One of things we're trying to do is get the organization to the point where the veteran has to do less than in years past.

WT: What do you feel is your biggest challenge?

McFarland: For me, personally, is getting up to speed with all the initiatives that are ongoing. The VA has a tremendous number of major projects.

Getting up to speed on those across administrations and understanding what those projects are and how they're being implemented, what environment we're bringing them up in and what our progress is.

My other focus has been infrastructure. To me, infrastructure is telecommunications and our data highways and LAN and WAN structures, our exchange environment, e-mail, Web ? a lot of that is infrastructure that spreads across all the entities here, and we've had a lot of duplication of efforts, which has been natural in the way we've built the organizations.

We're now consolidating that infrastructure so that we can reduce costs, turn more of those dollars back to care and benefits and also increase performance. Consolidation of infrastructure is the key.

WT: What about this job intrigued you to come out of retirement? [McFarland was retired about a year from Dell Inc. when he came to VA.]

McFarland: Well, when you get a call from White House personnel, you tend to listen. (laughs)

Years ago, my wife and I thought if we could ever do some public service, we would. But we never really knew we would: A. do that after we retired; and B. what form that would take.

I am a Vietnam vet, and I have a huge affinity for DOD and the VA, always have. When I came home in the 1960s from Vietnam, this wasn't exactly a grateful nation.

I know what it's like to interface with the VA and to get benefits. ? I know what it's like to be a veteran out there, to get through the bureaucracy to get those benefits, and I know it's not always easy. Being ex-Army, I certainly have an affinity for what our troops go through, and feel strongly about supporting those troops.

WT: Does the war in Iraq present new technology challenges for VA? Will you be facing an onslaught of veterans in the next few years?

McFarland: Certainly, we'll face a lot more returning veterans than we had. For us, I think it's important that we realize that this generation of new veterans we have is more technology savvy than before.

We're going to have to be a lot better with our IT tools and provide a lot more technology interfaces to this group of veterans than we've had to provide previous veterans. I think our technology is going to play an important part in how we interface with these veterans.

WT: What do you look for in companies with which you are thinking of doing business?

McFarland: I will carry over what I learned from 33 years in the private sector, and that is, I believe in partnerships.

We need to have the same set of goals and be down the same path. It's important for government to be inclined to be that way, because we spend a lot of money and have some very large-scale projects.

It's important to know that the people you're working with are your business partners, not just a contractor. I think business partnerships are typically where people are joined at the hip on these things, and develop and implement things together.

WT: For a company that is new to working with the VA, where is a good place to start? What would you advise them?

McFarland: A lot of it depends on what they have to offer. Certainly, getting to the VA, we have a strong staff that understands our needs. I'm just learning the methods by which government does business, so I defer a lot of contact to our procurement people and my deputy, Ed Meagher. I'm learning the rules and regulations of this, and it's very different from what I've done in the private sector. So from that perspective, they should feel free to contact us, either my very good deputy or myself. Ed is pretty savvy on what the community has to offer from the vendor standpoint.

WT: A year from now, where do you see VA's technology capabilities?

McFarland: We have a lot of projects in refreshing some of our prior health care activities.

We're looking at rewriting a lot of our legacy health care applications, which have been exceptional. That is one thing I was very impressed with when I got here.

I was surprised to see how strong they were from an electronic records standpoint. A lot of these have been rewritten over the years in some older technology, and I know that we've got a lot of projects and work in place to bring up those applications, so we can refresh them but not lose any of the flexibility and functionality, and in fact increase them. That is a major amount of our effort.

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