Old Software, New Problems for HHS, Veterans Affairs

Watchdog reports indicating that the federal government’s own internal computers and software systems is outdated by years—sometimes decades—pop up in the news frequently. The most recent case of system dysfunction related to these issues is putting the educations of thousands of US veterans at risk. College students that rely on the GI Bill to pay for their educations have found themselves coming up short when their monthly bill comes due because the Department of Veterans Affairs software responsible for reimbursing beneficiaries is too old.

According to NBC news, it turns out that the old program is not up to the task of calculating stipends under the new standards per the Forever GI Act. Attempts to implement the new standards, which tied payments to campus zip codes in order to eliminate overpayments, resulted in critical errors that led to incorrect payments as the new formulas were too difficult for the old systems in place at the agency, VA spokesman Curt Cashour told the Washington Post.

“Essentially, the law requires a 50-year-old IT platform that was designed to do the equivalent of basic math to instead perform something akin to calculus in short order,” Cashour said.

While Cashour suggesting that funding issues were to blame for the agency’s severely outdated computer systems, Molly Jenkins, a House VA committee spokeswoman, noted that “Congress just passed the largest VA budget in history” and $30 million had been allotted to improve the VA’s system.

This shortcoming has led some veterans to receive a fraction of their owed reimbursement payment for several consecutive months, causing them to go into debt to stay in school. About 450,000 veterans have been affected total, to some degree, while 895 students have waited longer than two months, resulting in a shortfall of $1,500 to $6,000 or more in expected payments, Cashour said. A hearing is scheduled over the issue in the US House of Representatives.

Two years ago, the Journal of AHIMA reported on a Government Accountability Office report about the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the VA, and Department of Defense (DoD), and those agencies’ outdated computer systems. The GAO report noted that various federal agencies were running software platforms and computer systems on technologies that were close to 50 years old in some cases, according to the report. The outdated systems were also present in the DoD, which had some systems using 8-inch floppy disks.

Last summer, when implementation of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, which calls for prosecution of all individuals illegally entering the United States, led to the separation of children from their parents at the US-Mexico border, the government lost the ability to easily track where children were sent due to faulty, outdated software at HHS and the Department of Homeland Security. Integration between the two agencies also contributed to this, Nextgov.com reported.

The matter of old computers has hampered implementation of the VA’s new electronic health record. According to Modern Healthcare, almost all of the computers at the providers chosen for initial implementation of Cerner are not compatible with the software—computers that are over five years old won’t run Cerner’s program.

Mary Butler is the associate editor at Journal of AHIMA.

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