Amid problems at one of its facilities in Florida, the Veterans Affairs Department now finds itself possibly having to shelve a $472 million test computer system that was slated to go nationwide in two years.
Last week, a top VA administrator, Robert Roswell, the agency's undersecretary for health, resigned, making him the third VA official to lose his job or be reassigned in connection with the problems at the Bay Pines VA Medical Center in St. Petersburg, the country's second-busiest VA facility.
The problems are so deep and the situation so unsettled that in testimony before Congress recently, VA Secretary Anthony Principi said it was unclear whether the computer project, called CoreFLS-for Core Financial and Logistics System-could be saved. The VA has already spent $249 million of its allotted $472 million for the nationwide project on the Florida pilot.
"Is it your opinion this (project is salvageable?" Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, asked Principi during a hearing last month.
"I don't know, Mr. Chairman. I have to be honest with you," Principi said.
Calls to the VA seeking comment were not returned.
As the VA undersecretary for health, Roswell oversaw the nation's largest integrated healthcare system and was in charge of implementing the CoreFLS system. While a news release from the VA quoted Roswell as saying he was leaving to make way "for a new perspective in leadership," Harry Glenn, a spokesman for Young, said his resignation is a result of the problems at Bay Pines.
CoreFLS, initiated during the Clinton administration, was supposed to improve accounting, billing, tracking of supplies and monitoring of contracts at the 1,100 facilities in the VA system when fully implemented in March 2006. But almost from the first time it was tested, the system experienced problems.
When it was first tested at a VA facility in Fayetteville, N.C., the response time of the computer was inordinately long. Nonetheless, after some tinkering, CoreFLS was moved to Bay Pines for more testing, with the thought that the system needed to be run through a larger, more complex VA facility to see how it would work.
Amid these problems, federal authorities began investigating Bay Pines and CoreFLS and did not like what they saw. A report from the VA inspector general's office in March called the management leadership at Bay Pines weak and faulted it for not properly training staff to use the computer system. As a result of the system woes, hundreds of surgeries were postponed.
Investigators also questioned why Bay Pines was even chosen as the test site. Before CoreFLS, the hospital experienced problems with its surgical supply system-either critical supplies were not available or were improperly sterilized by the supply-processing and distribution operations-dating back to 2001, the report said.
"The investigations all seem to agree they should not have picked Bay Pines to test this system out," Glenn said. Principi told Congress that if he had been aware of the problems at Bay Pines, he would not have chosen it as a test site.
In addition to Roswell, John O'Connor, the Washington-based director of CoreFLS, and Pramod Mohanty, the chief of staff at Bay Pines, were reassigned during the past month in the wake of the computer system problems.
A team from Carnegie Mellon University's Software Engineering Institute will be evaluating the system to determine whether it is salvageable and will report to Principi by June 1.
In an ironic twist, the VA was recognized late last month by NACHA-The Electronic Payments Association for implementing a nationwide remittance and payment-processing system in compliance with electronic standards of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. The Kevin O'Brien ACH (Auto-mated Clearing House) Quality Award was given to Barbara Mayerick, director of the VA Health Administration's chief business office, which developed the electronic payments system.
NACHA represents more than 12,000 financial institutions and develops electronic solutions for payments systems, according to its Web site.