After facing IT challenges with the implementation of the Forever GI Bill, Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) Robert Wilkie said during a Budget Request hearing for Fiscal Year 2021 that the department needed to look at its entire IT infrastructure’s readiness.

“VA has been underfunded on the IT front throughout the last several decades,” said Wilkie, speaking to the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs today. “Raising the IT infrastructure profile is absolutely the key,” he said.

Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif., said that he became aware of an IT system used to support the implementation of the Forever GI Bill that is over 50 years old and still in operation at the Veterans Affairs center in Muskogee, Okla.

Calling the IT systems used by the VA “very, very old,” Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., said the systems make it difficult to provide veterans world-class service. The implementation of the Forever GI Bill raises questions about the state of IT preparedness of the VA, he said.

The Inspector General of the VA released a statement last March showing that the IT systems were delayed and needed a major overhaul to implement provisions of the Forever GI Bill.

Wilkie said the department’s IT needs were beyond just implementing the GI Bill and that the readiness of the entire IT infrastructure needed to be examined.

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“There is a real sense that the time is near to not just continue to upgrade this old technology, but to really rethink the acquisition of new, commercial, off-the-shelf software and implement it in such a way that, going forward, we will not face the same problems,” said Paul Lawrence, under secretary for benefits at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Lawrence listed three IT priorities he would focus on if the department was given additional funding.

Lawrence expressed interest in customer relationship management, a technology like what banks and insurance companies currently use. Lawrence said the technology would allow the department to have access to information about veterans when they called.

High-tech computing power to enable quick calculations was also on Lawrence’s wish list. Lawrence gave the example of the computing power enabling a quick change for when a dependent is taken off insurance.

Lawrence said another priority is increased data capacity to incorporate the data that the VA has.

These priorities could be met by commercial companies, said Lawrence, and implementation would take between 18-24 months.

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Dwight Weingarten
Dwight Weingarten
Dwight Weingarten is a MeriTalk Staff Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.