VA looks to move past COBOL and in-house software development

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The Department of Veterans Affairs wants to get completely out of the business of developing its own software, its acting CIO said Monday.

“We’re going full into commercial — we’re going to be doing software-as-a-service, we’re going to be doing platform-as-a-service, infrastructure-as-a-service. We’re getting out of the software development business — it’s not a core competency,” acting VA CIO Rob Thomas said during a keynote at the 2017 GITEC Summit in Annapolis, Maryland.

“I see a future for us where we go digital platform both on the benefits side and the health side,” Thomas explained.

Thomas’ predecessor CIO LaVerne Council last year launched the idea of a VA digital health platform, which is slated to incorporate commercial cloud computing, open architecture and agile delivery to best keep pace with best-in-class digital health technologies.

That’s because today, VA is still running some systems based on COBOL programming, like its decades-old benefits delivery network, and it employs programmers who specialize in the maintenance of the outdated, legacy programming language — though “it’s dwindling, as you well know, they’re retiring,” the acting CIO said. The VA also enlists contractors to support the operations and maintenance of those systems, he added.

Modernizing those COBOL systems is at the top of Thomas and VA’s Office of Information and Technology’s list of priorities for 2017, he said.

“That’s a big risk to us,” Thomas said. “That’s something that’s job No. 1 for this year,” before things like continued development of enterprise cybersecurity strategy, modernizing VA’s health care scheduling program and consolidating financial management systems to be run as a shared service through the Agriculture Department.

Thomas’ continued talk of moving to commercial systems during his keynote begged insight on whether the VA would do the same with its electronic health records program, the in-house, custom-developed Veterans Information Systems and Technology Architecture, or VistA, launched back in the 1980s.

However, he was hesitant to jump ahead of new department Secretary David Shulkin’s plan to publicly decide no later than July on the future of VA’s EHR.

“We are on track right now,” Thomas said. “We have a great consulting firm in with us. They are developing a very elaborate and detailed business case that’s looking at four different courses of action,” such as moving away from VistA to a software-as-a-service model.

That work needs to be completed by May to give “the secretary enough time that he can form his opinion and which direction he’s going to announce we’re going.”

Thomas — who serves as VA’s deputy CIO in an official capacity but assumed the acting CIO role when Council stepped down at the change of administrations — spoke highly of Shulkin’s ability to do right by VA’s Office of Information and Technology in the decision he makes because as the former undersecretary for health prior to appointment as secretary, he knows VA’s vision for modernizing its EHR quite well.

“He’s very decisive — not keen and fond of bureaucracy, which really helps us,” Thomas said. “He’s aware of our trajectory, what we have, what our strategy is. So now when we roll out these big ideas, we’re going to be able to get on with those instead of talking about organizational changes and procedure changes.”

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Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), electronic health records (EHRs), GITEC, Rob Thomas