Tuesday, June 28, 2016

More e-mails turn up






    "We continue to ask what happened to the money and where are the results?"

    That's Senator Mazie Hirono offering a to the point observation.

    She could have been speaking about Iraq but was instead speaking of another disaster -- VA management.

    Thursday, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing.  It was not good news.

    This despite the fact that VA witnesses David Shulkin, LaVerne Council, Laura Eskenazi and Ron Burke tried to spin happy and even enlist the GAO's Valerie Melvin in their spin (Melvin refused to play along).

    The Committee Chair is Johnny Isakson and the Ranking Member is Richard Blumenthal.

    We'll note this exchange:

    Ranking Member Richard Blumenthal:  I'd like to ask about the impact of lack of cooperation between Department of Defense and VA.  As I mentioned in my opening statement, we've been reassured repeatedly that both agencies are cooperating with each other -- which somehow defies credibility because, if that's so, there would have been interoperability or the issues would have been solved long ago. So let me ask you, Ms. Melvin, who bears the responsibility here?  And what's happening?

    Valerie Melvin: Actually, I place the responsibility on both departments and primarily on the leadership of those departments in terms of being able to really, uh, establish upfront what it is that the departments want to achieve in the way of interoperability.  A long standing concern that we've had with interoperability is in terms with is interoperability supposed to be.  Uh, we have not  been able, really, over the years, to get from either agency what they mean in terms of full interoperability, what that end state is supposed to be in the way of the technology that exists and how that technology is used.  So, uh, as we -- as we've looked at this over the years, we've had a lot of discussions with both VA and with the DoD, we've had a lot of assurances along the way that that was being taken care of but what we consistently see is a lack of -- really a lack of the clear planning and the definition of what it is and then how they plan to implement measures and goals to get there.

    Ranking Member Richard Blumenthal:  What can -- what would you recommend that we do on this Committee and the United States Senate generally to make sure that there is interoperability?

    Valerie Melvin:  I think in the immediate -- right now, I would say that there are a lot of -- we've made a lot of recommendations to both VA and DoD.  We're still following up to see where they are in the process of addressing those. But we also know that they're in the midst of a number of changes to the approach that they are taking.  We've had a lot of concerns and questions relative to the fact that both departments are essentially going down separate tracks with their modernization efforts on this step for the Dept of Veteran Affairs and the alter system within DoD.  We know that the intent to have interoperability.  I think from the standpoint of-of your role in this process is continued oversight, continued pressing for answers and explicit discussions and details relative to what the plans are, how interoperability is to be defined at its fullest and how the agencies intend to progress and measure their progress towards getting there.

    Ranking Member Richard Blumenthal:  Ms. Council, my information is -- well actually, it is the VA's monthly information, Security Report for April 2016, about 2556 veterans were effected by incidents of data breach.  That number is about six times the number reported by the VA a year before that in March 2015.  What accounts for the increase?

    LaVerne Council: I'd have to look at the data you have.  What I do know is that about 24% of any of the mishandlings that we have mismailings -- which is letters, data that has gone out in the wrong envelope to a-a person who shouldn't have received those and 41% of those are mishandling or mismailing.  The other part of the situation is things that we look at like privacy violations, policy violations, unencrypted devices, those are where we really, really take a very diligent look and ensure that we are tidying up any kind of access to the veterans information.  So, to date, for FY16, that's what we're basically seeing which is actually about 20% lower than it was the year before.

    Ranking Member Richard Blumenthal:  What is 20% lower?

    LaVerne Council:  The-the number mismailings and misappropriation, mishandling of veterans --

    Ranking Member Richard Blumenthal:  Well, we're not really talking about mismailings, we're talking about data breaches --

    LaVerne Council:  The actually --

    Ranking Member Richard Blumenthal:  And I understand that a mismailing can cause a data breach --

    LaVerne Council: It's considered a data breach, yes, sir.

    Ranking Member Richard Blumenthal (Con't): If something is sent to the wrong address.  How can that happen?  Don't you -- how can you send a letter to the wrong address.

    LaVerne Council: That is actually a process within the business.  It's not an IT process.  But because I am the CIO I'm responsible for all data and any data that is misused or mismanaged or moved to the wrong place -- and also have a responsibility for privacy.  It falls with us but I am not --

    Ranking Member Richard Blumenthal:  I understand that.  Here is my question: You've got records --

    LaVerne Council:  Mm-hmm.

    Ranking Member Richard Blumenthal:  You do mailings, communications to veterans over a period of years.  It's not like somebody sits down for that letter and [acts out physically hand writing] scribbles out something.  It comes from a system that has been mailing consistently.  How does it all of the sudden get the address wrong?

    LaVerne Council:  Generally the system is not doing the mailing, there is a manual interface with human error --

    Ranking Member Richard Blumenthal:  So you are saying that somebody is sitting there and actually typing out an address on an envelope?

    LaVerne Council: I am saying that envelopes come together and the paper is put into an envelope by a human being.  And sent away.   Yes.  It is not mechanized --

    Ranking Member Richard Blumenthal:  This sounds like a very low tech --

    LaVerne Council: Very low tech.

    Ranking Member Richard Blumenthal:  Eminently addressable and correctable.

    LaVerne Council:  Yes, sir.

    Ranking Member Richard Blumenthal:  What's being done?

    LaVerne Council: One of the things we're looking at with the VBS team -- and working with them, and I'll refer to Mr. [VBA Assistant Deputy Under Secretary for Field Operations Ron] Burke on this change in their process because right now when it occurs it's not something that IT itself created it but we feel we're responsible to correct it.

    Ranking Member Richard Blumenthal:  Well these kind of data breaches -- and if they're rising six-fold over a fiscal year -- have to be addressed right away.  And we're not talking here about some sophisticated hacking operation.

    LaVerne Council:  Mmm-uhh.  No.

    Ranking Member Richard Blumenthal:  But it's equally dangerous and damaging to privacy.

    There has been no significant progress at the VA under Barack Obama's two terms as US President thus far.

    Doubt it?

    The above should have reminded you of one thing.

    And, thankfully, there was one senator on the Committee not afraid to speak of the elephant in the room.

    Senator Jon Tester:  So let me ask, and I hesitate to ask this question, you probably know the answer and I don't, is the DoD and the VA -- is their medical records streamlined?  And can they go back and forth without any problems?
    Dr. David Shulkin:  I wouldn't go that far.

    He then spoke of a joint-viewer.

    The seamless transition.

    That record that was going to be electronic and move right over to VA from DoD when a service member transitioned to veteran.

    Remember it?

    The issue was highlighted before Barack became president in January of 2009.

    It was something he was going to take care of -- in his first term.

    It still hasn't been taken care of.

    April 11, 2013, the House Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing on the budget and took testimony from VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, among others.  For coverage, see that day's snapshotAva 's "Shinseki tries to present 134% increase as a gift for women,"  Wally's "How the VA and DoD waste your tax dollars (Wally)"  and Kat's "DAV calls for Congress to reject 'chained CPI'."

    US House Rep Phil Roe:  Another question I have is the integration between DoD and VA on the eletronic health records and the benefits. Should we have a joint meeting between VA and DoD -- and I realize that Senator -- that Defense Secretary Hagel has a lot on his plate with North Korea and the Middle East right now. 

    Secretary Eric Shinseki:  Yep.

    US House Rep Phil Roe:  But this is one of my concerns when we changed was the fact that this would get a backburner again.  And are we going to be sitting here -- and you and I have spoken about this and that was a private conversation and it will remain that way but are we going to be sitting here a year from now or two years or three years because it's not a resources -- putting of money -- to be able to integrate these systems.  I mean, it's really become very frustrating to me to sit here year after year and, unless the voters have a different idea, I plan to be here in 2015 and see if we complete these things we say we're going to do.  Is it there.

    Secretary Eric Shinseki:  Again, Congressman, Secretary Hagel and I have discussed this on at least two and maybe three occassions.  He is, again, putting into place, his system to assure the way ahead for him to make this decision and be the partner that we need here.  Uhm, he is committed to a, uh, integrated electronic health record between the two departments.  We are -- VA has made its decision on what the core  and we're prepared to move forward.

    US House Rep Phil Roe:  Somebody has to blink. Obviously, we can't integrate them, so it's going to have to be one system or the other.  And I think what I heard you say was you've decided the VA is going to stay with the system it has.  That means that he's going to have to blink.

    Secretary Eric Shinseki:  Uh, I would say the VA system is government owned, government operated.  We have put VISTA into the  open architecture trade space so that anyone who wants to use it can use it. It's used in other countries.  I believe it is, uh, a powerful system and, uh, I'm just awaiting, uh, a discussion with Secretary Hagel. 

    The VA keeps coming before Congress and offering excuses for not doing their job.


    The seamless electronic record was supposed to have been place years ago.

    Despite all the money thrown at the problem, it is not in place.

    A functioning president would be demanding that VA and DoD get this problem working out in a matter of weeks.

    Instead, it has been allowed to drag on.


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