House appropriators propose $12B increase for VA’s budget, including big IT boost

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The Department of Veterans Affairs could be getting almost all of the money it asked Congress for under the White House’s fiscal 2021 budget request, including a double-digit percent increase in IT funding.

The House Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee proposed a $104.8 billion discretionary budget for the VA, just $35 million shy of the department’s 2021 budget request. Part of the $12.3 billion increase over fiscal 2020 enacted funding levels is for long-overdue IT modernization needs at the VA. The draft legislation would approve $4.9 billion for IT — a 12% increase over 2020.

“The MilCon/VA bill includes historic spending for women veterans, mental health, suicide prevention, medical research, and homeless prevention, while closely monitoring VA claims processing and system modernizations,” subcommittee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said in a statement.

The legislation is still subject to a subcommittee markup which will take place July 7.

Funding for the VA’s massive electronic health record modernization continues on an upward trajectory, with $2.6 billion proposed the program, a $1.1 billion increase. The EHR modernization is designed to completely revamp the VA’s health record system, giving it new scheduling software and making its records interoperable with the DOD’s own modernized system. Both programs have experienced implementation delays due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The near doubling of the program’s funding comes with strings attached. “The bill also continues GAO oversight of this program to ensure that the EHR system is implemented in a timely manner,” the summary states.

Previous inspector general and GAO studies have exposed a lack of IT infrastructure, delays and cost overruns in the 10-year, $16 billion project. Much of the requested extra money will go toward upgrading IT infrastructure to meet the scale and challenge of the EHR program, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie told Congress.

The appropriations would also benefit other IT programs, like modernizing the Veterans Benefits Administration’s back-office systems for claims filing. The VBA has found success in using artificial intelligence-enabled systems to reduce the manual workload for claims processing, but still takes months to process most claims.

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artificial intelligence (AI), Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), electronic health records (EHRs), IT Modernization
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