The Veterans Affairs Department is shopping to replace an electronic appointments scheduling system that was manipulated by staff at dozens of VA hospitals to conceal the fact facilities were not meeting the needs of veterans trying to see a doctor.
The VA will publish a request for proposals by the end of September and companies will have 30 days to respond, VA Secretary Robert McDonald announced on Monday.
"As VA recommits to its mission of caring for veterans and evaluating our actions through the lens of what serves them best, we know a better scheduling system is necessary to provide them the timely, quality health care that they have earned and deserve," McDonald said in his statement.
VA officials have long known that the current electronic appointment system -- developed in the 1980s -- is outdated. It spent millions between 2000 and 2009 to modernize it, only to walk away from the project.
VA officials and lawmakers have also known that the current system was susceptible to manipulation, having been told as early as 2013 by a Government Accountability Office report that appointments staff admitted to changing appointment dates to show that they fell within VA performance goals.
A year before, a former VA hospital official in New Hampshire told lawmakers that medical center executives across the country were swapping best practices for getting around VA standards on wait times.
But the appointments system finally came under intense scrutiny only in May, following media reports that dozens of veterans died waiting for an appointment at the VA Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona. In a practice later found to be in use at VA hospitals elsewhere in the country, the Phoenix facility was keeping a secret list of individuals requesting appointments.
An ongoing investigation by the VA's Office of the Inspector General could result in criminal charges against officials; in particular any who directed such manipulation and earned cash bonuses that, in part, were awarded for meeting VA wait times standards.
In his statement Monday, McDonald said the new electronic system being sought will improve veterans' access to care by providing schedulers "with cutting-edge, management-based scheduling software."
"When we can put a solid scheduling system in place, this will free up more human resources to focus on direct veterans' care," he said.
While the VA looks for a new and better system, it is again trying to improve the current one.
It recently awarded a contract to improve the existing scheduling interface, providing schedulers a calendar view of resources instead of the text-based, multiple-screen view they have now, the statement said. That upgrade should be in use by January 2015.
The department is also developing mobile applications that veterans may use to directly request certain types of primary care and mental health appointments. Another app still under development will give schedulers an improved interface for scheduling appointments.
-- These apps will be ready for use in December, according to the VA.
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.