Federal IT Systems Have IG Risks, Outdated Technologies, GAO Says

The healthcare industry isn’t alone in endeavoring to tackle legacy IT systems in the name of information governance (IG). It should come as no surprise that the federal government faces similar challenges maintaining its systems, though the scope of its struggle appears daunting.

A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that various federal agencies are running software platforms and computer systems on technologies that are close to 50 years old in some cases, according to the report. The outdated systems are present in departments as crucial as the Veterans Administration and the Department of Defense, which still has some systems that use 8-inch floppy disks. What’s more, the Treasury Department uses assembly language code—a computer language initially used in the 1950s and typically tied to the hardware for which it was developed

To conduct its assessment, the GAO reviewed the operations and maintenance budgets of 26 federal agencies and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), as well as a further review of the 12 agencies with the highest planned IT spending for 2015.

According to the report, for its part, “OMB recently began an initiative to modernize, retire, and replace the federal government’s legacy IT systems. As part of this, OMB drafted guidance requiring agencies to identify, prioritize, and plan to modernize legacy systems. Until this policy is finalized and fully executed, however, the government runs the risk of maintaining systems that have outlived their effectiveness,” the authors wrote.

Securing legacy systems with electronic health record (EHR), billing, and claims data are a major piece of information governance practices in healthcare. In many facilities, protected health information is still stored on old systems in accordance with record retention and disposition policies.

The agencies highlighted in the report stated that they had some updates and upgrades planned, but most did not have a strict time frame for doing so. The following list details some causes for concern, according to the GAO:

  • The Veterans Administration’s personnel and accounting integrated data systems records are written in common business oriented language (COBOL), a programming language developed in the 1950s and 1960s, and runs on IBM mainframes. The department does have a plan to replace it in 2017
  • The Social Security Administration’s Title II system, which determines benefits eligibility and amounts, is comprised of 162 sub-systems written in COBOL. This agency, however, has ongoing modernization efforts.
  • The Department of Defense’s strategic automated command and control system, which coordinates the operational functions of US nuclear forces such as intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear bombers, and tanker support aircrafts, runs on an IBM Series/1 Computer, a 1970s computing system, and uses 8-inch floppy disks.
Mary Butler is the associate editor at The Journal of AHIMA.

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