House committee blasts VA over troubled $543 million tech contract

Washington-Update 7:30 p.m.: 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.

Update 3:43 p.m.: Frustrated lawmakers eviscerated the Department of Veterans Affairs’ handling of a troubled technology contract Tuesday afternoon, demanding discipline for employees who may have bungled the $543 million contract and blasting the agency for its lack of transparency

The 2012 contract, managed in part by the Austin-based officials, was supposed to allow the VA to digitally track hospital equipment and save money. 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 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 IT 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.”

 Kathleen Rice, D-New York, 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 who inside the department had been held responsible for the contract problems. Bergman demanded a list of all disciplinary action resulting from the RTLS and Catamaran contracts.

Tammy Czarnecki, the VA’s assistant deputy under secretary 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 almost in half, delayed the contract at least a year and absolved the contractor of liability, had not been made available in full to the VA’s office of inspector general.

“This is unbelievable. Anybody embarrassed here?” said U.S. 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.

It’s unclear when or if the VA will bring the RTLS technology to other facilities once the revised contract expires, or if the VA is on target to reach its June target date. Czarnacki told lawmakers dozens of facilities are already using RTLS technology to track surgical equipment.

“The goalposts have been lowered,” U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Michigan said. “But can they be met?”

Earlier: The House Veterans Affairs Committee will hold a hearing Tuesday afternoon to examine a troubled half-billion dollar technology contract to track medical equipment that has been plagued with problems for years.

The Department of Veterans of Affairs has said the 2012 contract with what was then Hewlett-Packard Enterprise Services would jumpstart the department’s foray into advanced technologies, allowing it to wirelessly track equipment as it moves through medical centers. The effort to build a real-time locating system, or RTLS, would save millions of dollars in lost or misplaced equipment and prevent death and disease from unsterilized equipment, officials said.

But a 2017 American-Statesman investigation revealed that two years ago VA officials warned in internal emails the contract was in danger of “catastrophic failure” amid fundamental concerns over whether the department’s WiFi could support the system and the reliability of the small tags used to track equipment.

The contract was eventually downscaled and instead of bringing the technology to every VA hospital in the nation, the number of RTLS facilities was cut almost in half. The contract’s 2017 completion date was extended by at least a year.

The problems with the RTLS contract underscore the VA’s larger challenges with information technology, which has been dubbed a “high risk area” by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. In December, the VA’s internal investigators confirmed the Statesman’s findings, concluding that the RTLS contract had been dogged by poor oversight and security lapses.

The House committee will also look at another troubled technology: the Catamaran project, meant to manage hospital supplies using predictive analytics. The program was terminated in 2016 after employees complained of frequent system crashes that made it difficult to order supplies, according to documents obtained by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

By Jeremy Schwartz, American-Statesman Staff

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