Frustrated lawmakers took aim at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ handling of a troubled technology contract with Austin connections on Tuesday, demanding discipline for employees who might have bungled the $543 million contract and blasting the agency for its lack of transparency.
The 2012 contract, managed in part by Austin-based contracting officials, was supposed to allow the VA to digitally track hospital equipment to save money and keep unsterilized equipment out of operating rooms. But it has been beset by delays and accuracy problems, and the VA’s internal investigators recently concluded the department exercised poor oversight.
It’s the latest in a series of information technology blunders by the VA, and on Tuesday the House Committee on Veterans Affairs also probed the failed “Catamaran” project, a $275 million contract to manage hospital supplies using predictive analytics that was terminated in 2016.
“There’s not a more perennial issue of disappointment to me” than the VA’s chronic information technology problems, said U.S. Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Lubbock. “I have heard I don’t know how many stanzas of the same old song, but this is getting really old.”
The stakes are set to get even higher. The VA might soon enter its largest IT contract ever, a proposed project to modernize health records that could cost up to $16 billion.
Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., called the problems with the real-time locating system to track equipment, or RTLS project, which were first revealed in an American-Statesman investigation last year, “beyond unacceptable.”
Lawmakers repeatedly asked VA representatives about who inside the department had been held responsible for the contract problems. Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Mich., demanded a list of all disciplinary action resulting from the RTLS and Catamaran contracts.
Tammy Czarnecki, the VA’s assistant deputy undersecretary for health for administrative operations, said she believed there had been “accountability throughout the entire process,” explaining: “I believe we held the vendor accountable as well as our own staff. … The staff was required to work through the process with the vendor.”
The contract was originally awarded to Hewlett-Packard Enterprise Services, which has since become DXC Technology.
But lawmakers were livid that a 2016 settlement agreement — which reduced the number of facilities receiving the RTLS technology by almost half, delayed the contract at least a year and absolved the contractor of liability — had not been made available in full to the VA inspector general’s office.
“This is unbelievable. Anybody embarrassed here?” said Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine. “We’re losing our pants on deals, and then we relieve them of responsibility?” VA officials later said they would hand over the settlement agreement.
When first proposed at the VA, the RTLS system was considered to be at the bleeding edge of new supply tracking technology, but that has since become increasingly common at hospitals and clinics across the country. Hewlett-Packard blamed problems with the contract’s poor performance on the VA’s weak Wi-Fi.
VA officials said that while the contract extension called for RTLS work to be finished by June, it now expects completion by the end of the year. The VA then plans to study the “return on investment” and study the project’s benefits before deciding whether to expand to remaining facilities.
Czarnecki told lawmakers that dozens of facilities are already using RTLS technology to track surgical equipment.
“The goal posts have been lowered,” Bergman said. “But can they be met?”
What We Reported
In June 2017, an American-Statesman investigation revealed widespread problems that were hobbling the Department of Veterans Affairs’ $543 million contract to digitally track medical equipment across its facilities. The investigation was built on thousands of pages of emails and reports obtained by the newspaper using the Freedom of Information Act.