Senators: Use Private Sector Tech Firms to Fix VA

Senator Richard Burr

A bipartisan group of senators believes the latest scandal to rock the Department of Veterans Affairs is evidence that the VA needs technological assistance from the private sector – and believes IT companies will offer the necessary help for free.

The lawmakers, including Sen. Richard Burr, R-NC, ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., former chairwoman of the panel, told President Obama in a letter that VA staff manipulation of patient appointments  and the fact that some veterans died before seeing a doctor demands a speedy response.

"We recommend enlisting the expertise of the private sector to provide an assessment and recommendations for improvements to the current IT and workflow challenges at VA," the senators wrote. "By calling on our best minds across the private sector in a pro bono demonstration of solid corporate citizenship, we could create a blueprint for achievable action the VA should undertake within 60-to-90 days."

The scandal broke in April when CNN reported that up to 40 veterans may have died while waiting to get an appointment at the VA Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona. The VA has since confirmed staff there kept a secret list of veterans looking for care, but whose names were not included on the official electronic waiting list.

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson, named to the post on May 30 after Eric Shinseki resigned, confirmed that 35 veterans on the unauthorized list died. Investigators also found that the manipulation of appointment schedules has been systemic across the VA.

The senators said help from the private sector previously worked to resolve problems at Arlington National Cemetery, where government investigators in 2010 turned up evidence of widespread mismanagement. The Army IG found that remains of troops and veterans were misplaced and mishandled, and revealed that cemetery managers were still relying on decades-olds hand-written paper files to burial records.

A consortium of technology firms working under the nonpartisan, nonprofit Northern Virginia Technology Council formed and modernized records processing at Arlington. A special legal framework was developed to permit the Army – which oversees Arlington – to accept the pro bono work.

Arlington serves as a template for helping the VA, they said.

"We are confident that private sector expertise from across the country could be assembled to provide a similar pro bono service to help fix the challenges at the VA, and we stand ready to assist the Administration in moving quickly to help empanel this group," they said. "Not every problem requires a government solution."

Others who signed the letter to Obama were Sens. Mark R. Warner, D-VA., Mike Johanns, R-Neb., Al Franken, D-Minn., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo.,

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@monster.com

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