The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has faced acquisition management problems – placing it on the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) High-Risk List – but agency officials on Sept. 20 said they are looking to chart a new course in VA acquisition, one that may require an enterprise-wide approach.
During a House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing, Michael Parrish, chief acquisition officer, and principal executive director at VA’s Office of Acquisition, Logistics, and Construction, said the agency has made “considerable progress” to address GAO’s concerns.
“I am personally involved in ensuring that we show GAO and others how VA is properly monitoring and demonstrating progress across the enterprise,” Parrish said. “In its most recent report regarding VA acquisition management, GAO noted substantial work has been done to develop our acquisition lifecycle framework.”
However, lawmakers and Shelby Oakley, director of contracting and national security acquisitions at GAO, said VA has a long way to go until VA’s acquisition management will be able to successfully meet the needs of veterans.
Lawmakers pointed to the VA’s troubled Electronic Health Records Modernization (EHRM) program, which the agency initially estimated would cost $10 billion over 10 years. The new cost estimate is closer to $56 billion, with $39 billion for implementation of the EHR system over 13 years, and then $17 billion to maintain the system over 15 years.
The committee also noted the VA’s struggles to acquire a modern medical supply chain management system, which the GAO has also reported on several times. As Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H., warned, “the supply chain modernization failures resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in cost overruns and years of delays,” according to GAO’s findings.
Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., stressed that the committee has seen a “fundamental lack of planning, budgeting, and adherence to contracting best practices by VA and its contracting centers.”
Notably, Oakley said one of the biggest challenges GAO has seen regarding VA’s acquisition is “VA’s even ability to develop a credible cost estimate. You know, we have a lot of concerns about the capacity within the organization to do that.”
Oakley said that while she is encouraged by “the time and attention” Parrish has invested into improving acquisition management, the agency needs an enterprise-wide effort.
“The sustainable, repeatable progress that his office is seeking requires much change across the VA enterprise – not only in the organizations that he directly manages but also in other parts of the department, which manage substantial acquisition programs,” Oakley said. “Without a coordinated and persistent enterprise-wide effort, the improvements VA seeks to meet the needs of veterans will be elusive.”
Parrish acknowledged and agreed with GAO’s concerns and said he considers the agency “to be a force multiplier helping us to improve our processes.”
“Broader acquisition reform within VA is essential to our ability to survive and flourish in these dynamic markets such as healthcare and technology,” he said. “Systemic reforms and new tools such as other transactional authority will allow us to fuse acquisition with innovation to create that cradle-to-grave force multiplying effect.”