Healthcare Business News

Getting Microsoft contract figure is a macro-pain

By Andis Robeznieks
Posted: July 20, 2012 - 2:45 pm ET

Because no one else has told you, I'm compelled to let you know that the Veterans Affairs Department, recognized as a leader and pioneer in health information technology, will spend around $77 million on Microsoft equipment and services in its coming fiscal year.

It's apparently old news, but part of an odd corporate communications saga that left me bewildered over the past week.

“US Department of Veterans Affairs Makes Major Investment in Microsoft Technologies” read the headline of a July 12 Microsoft news release that trumpeted how the VA was “strengthening its technology investment to transform healthcare, benefits and other services for America's veterans” with a new five-year enterprise agreement that would “help optimize the department's technology spend.”

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It sounded like a decent news story, but the release didn't mention a dollar amount, so I contacted the listed media contact to find out how much the VA was spending in this “major investment.” After all, taxpayers' dollars were being spent so that makes it public information.

“We are working on getting you some information. What is your deadline?” was the response I received a few hours later.

The next day, Friday the 13th, I received an e-mail from someone else telling me my original contact “was travelling,” but this new contact “did some digging internally” and found the best sources for specifics on the VA's Microsoft investment were MicroTech and Dell—two companies not mentioned in the release. “My apologies for the lack of additional details. Warmest regards.”

I'd also been trying media contacts listed on the Microsoft website. “Thank you for your voicemail and email; I am happy to look into this for you. Are you working with a specific deadline?” was the original message I received from this person. On Monday, however, she told me my “best resource” on this matter was the guy telling me to call someone else.

In frustration, I replied that I didn't understand why Microsoft couldn't tell me the value of the VA's “major investment in Microsoft.”

“Again, I apologize for the inconvenience. Unfortunately, we have nothing further to share,” was her reply.

Another person from the same PR firm e-mailed me Friday after 7 p.m. Central time: “I am happy to look into this for you. I understand you are looking for information regarding a press release about the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs investing in Microsoft technology. Are you working with a specific deadline here?”

I e-mailed back first thing Monday morning, and said that, if I received the information by noon, we could get something in that afternoon's edition of Health IT Strategist. Several hours later I received this reply: “I apologize for missing your deadline and any inconvenience it may have caused. Are you able to update your newsletter should my colleagues be able to provide this information?”

“We would hold it until tomorrow,” I replied. “We will not run without a dollar figure.”

I successfully fought the urge to inform her that I wasn't born yesterday.

(A Google search of the new release's headline, however, indicates that there are almost 13,000 copies of the release circulating on the web. I haven't checked them all, but it appears that the lack of a dollar amount didn't seem to bother a lot of people.)

Late Monday afternoon, my original contact e-mailed me back.

“Microsoft is not a direct seller of software and works through partners, or resellers, on enterprise agreements like this so those organizations are the best source for pricing figures,” he said, and directed me to a May 2 MicroTech news release that mentioned how the company—partnering with Dell and Microsoft—had received a contract of up to $500 million for up to five years to assist the VA in the “operation, management and implementation” of Microsoft products.

It didn't say how much the VA was spending on said products. The MicroTech media contact didn't respond to my inquiries. Dell's media point man sent me a release from May 2011, and he seemed sympathetic but extremely wary about stepping into this mess.

As I prepared to file a Freedom of Information Act request Wednesday, I heard back from the VA. A spokeswoman told me the new Microsoft Enterprise agreement was signed April 1, and provided for $17,337,661 in “enterprise services” (How's that for providing a specific number?) and almost $60 million for Software Assurance ( a volume-licensing package), which included $500,000 for Bing Map term licenses. The agreement includes four option years.

I was told that the VA also spent almost $24 million in fiscal 2012 on Microsoft licenses through its annual “true-up” process where it accounts for licenses added or removed beyond the specific “base” number listed in its agreement.

Now you know.

Andis Robeznieks covers physician affairs for Modern Healthcare.

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