Federal lawmakers on Thursday pressed officials from the Veterans Affairs Department on a federal budget that boosts overall spending on medical care, including its extensive system of electronic health records, but may do so at the cost of the agency's other services.
Overall, the White House budget, released on Monday, would increase spending on VA Health by $2.3 billion over the 2008 level, up 6% to $41.2 billionits highest request ever. A chunk of that money would go to upgrades to the VA's health information technology infrastructure, including a long-term project to link up with the Defense Department, plus boosts to the security of the personal data contained within, the VA said.
"Our healthcare and benefits programs can only be successful when directly supported by a modern IT infrastructure and an aggressive program to develop improved IT systems that will meet new service delivery requirements," VA Secretary James Peake, a surgeon, said in written testimony. "VA must modernize or replace existing systems that are no longer adequate in today's rapidly changing healthcare environment."
The budget also earmarks $2.44 billion for the department's overall IT budget, an increase of roughly 23% over 2008's $1.98 billion request. Out of that, the VA said it would dedicate about $1.7 billion for IT investment costs while doling out the remaining dollars for payroll and administrative requirements.
Peake, a one-time U.S. Army surgeon general and a decorated combat veteran, told members of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee that the department plans to add 94 full-time employees to help ensure that the often-sensitive data that moves through the VA's IT systems are safe, secure and private, "underscoring our commitment to the protection of veteran and employee information."
Last September, the Government Accountability Office found that the VA continued to have chinks in its information security practices after the highly publicized 2006 theft of a computer that had the personal information of more than 26 million veterans on it.
The budget gives the VA more than $270 million to bolster its health IT infrastructure, while another $284 million would go toward the development and implementation of the next generation of Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture, called HealtheVet-VistA, which includes a health data repository, a patient scheduling system and an upgraded pharmacy application.
But until it's fully operational, the VA is asking for $99 million to maintain and operate its existing VistA system, Peake noted in his testimony.
Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), who chairs the committee, hinted that the budget request may not be a sure thing. While he lauded the increased spending for medical care, he noted that it "barely covers the increase in inflation for healthcare in our nation."
Additionally, Filner said that the projected spending boost comes at a time when other VA accounts, including those for construction, research and its administration of cemeteries, are seeing less money. "Although you have increased the healthcare budget, (it's done) at the expense of the rest of the accounts," Filner said. "We have concerns about not only this year, but now your projections for the future."
The VA said it expects to treat more than 5.7 million patients next year, about 90,000 more than it projected in 2008. Overall, the Bush administration wants to fund the VA at $93.7 billion in fiscal 2009.
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