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New VA CIO Outlines Top Priorities

Kurt DelBene eyes EHR modernization, telehealth and workforce development.
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VA CIO Kurt DelBene
VA CIO Kurt DelBene. Photo Credit: Brian Smale and Microsoft

As the Department of Veterans Affairs gears up for a revitalized electronic health care record program, newly appointed CIO Kurt DelBene outlined a tech vision for the agency that points to forthcoming innovation around the user experience and workforce development.

“There’s no more important mission for our government, or me personally, than to keep our promise to our veterans, their families and our caregivers,” DelBene told reporters Thursday. “[VA] is using technology to better serve veterans, and it will remain a priority for us.”

DelBene outlined targeted priorities his office will work toward, including:

  • Expand teleservices and telehealth
  • Build an innovative, inclusive and diverse workforce
  • Establish VA as a leader in digital transformation
  • Improve veteran digital and user experience
  • Boost transparency
  • Modernize infrastructure to reduce technical debt
  • Increase security and effectiveness
  • Move to a modern data infrastructure
  • Accelerate process automation
  • Leverage lessons learned to improve EHR modernization.

Currently, VA is updating its financial management and logistics systems, enabling support for caregivers through enhancements to its benefits system, as well as overhauling its EHR system.

DelBene, a prior executive at Microsoft who prior to that helped President Obama fix Healthcare.gov, brings a career of industry tech experience to the agency that has recently faced management challenges within arguably its biggest IT transformation effort in creating a common electronic health care record for veterans.

“That transformation of IT into this modern world … it’s a huge opportunity for the federal government overall. I think VA is in a position to lead here and also be an example of how this is done in the federal government,” DelBene said. “The way that you build things, and the things you choose to build, should be focused and aligned around stakeholder engagement. Then, the way we do agile development should flow from there. That’s the greatest opportunity.”

Plus, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency had to quickly pivot and scale its IT solutions to continue to deliver accessible care to veterans and in some cases support the civilian health care system under its “Fourth Mission.”

Notable tech advancements during that time included services like enabling vaccine appointment scheduling through text messages. Over 230,000 veterans were able to schedule such appointments, VA CTO Charles Worthington told reporters Thursday.

VA also expanded telehealth leading to successfully conducting 16.2 million visits since the pandemic began in 2020. The agency recently soft-launched a new flagship mobile app to provide additional access opportunities that meet users where they are.

“In the pandemic era alone, we created apps in a matter of hours and put them in practice to serve immediate needs. We need to do more of that,” DelBene said. “We can also build more transparency in our resource allocation and our agility moving forward. We can move those resources around more quickly as a result. This will enable us to be more transparent externally in the work that we’re doing and will also provide critical information to other parts of the government so that they can help us to succeed.”

VA’s overhaul of its EHR program, to include changes to its leadership and organizational structure in December 2021, will better position the agency to roll out the system to other VA sites. By taking a change management approach, DelBene noted that VA will be able to build a better process and product, as well as engage with stakeholders.

“VA runs the largest integrated health care system in the United States. As such, I think we’re in a unique position to demonstrate the role technology can play in the lives of veterans and serving our customers,” DelBene said.

Much of the EHR efforts are driving some of DelBene’s most immediate priorities. He sees system training as an area where VA could improve. For the next EHR rollout, DelBene will look to establish and define go-live criteria, in collaboration with the clinicians, to improve workflows and systems.

“The actual transformation is going to be as much about change management and people systems,” DelBene said.

Backing these modernization priorities is VA’s Digital Transformation Strategy, which outlines four guiding principles: transparency, accountability, innovation and teamwork. The strategy is intended to maximize VA’s impact on veteran care and services and strengthen the agency’s stewardship of taxpayer resources.

“Having the clarity around what the North Star looks like … that will be a driver,” DelBene told GovCIO Media & Research about the strategy. “First and foremost, you have to decide where you want to take the bus, and then how you want to get there … We’ve talked a great deal about what’s above the line and what’s below the line in terms of things we have funded today versus the cutline and things that are not funded and need to be funded.”

After determining funding, VA will look to stand up resources and prioritize modernization goals, leveraging emerging technologies, like low-code/no-code and cloud, to meet VA’s mission needs. Moving forward, DelBene hopes to draw from the private sector from technologies like deep AI algorithms to find patterns within data.

“Our focus is on innovation and bringing industry best practices and cutting-edge technology to the VA,” DelBene said. “It really comes down to being very rigorous in the development processes, from a vision perspective, in clear lockstep with your stakeholders, and then making the right technical decisions as well.”

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