VA planning two RFPs to help fix patient scheduling problems

Wednesday - 6/11/2014, 3:58am EDT

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The Veterans Affairs Department will try to address one major aspect of its patient scheduling scandal by looking to industry for help. VA is planning two major acquisitions in the coming months to take advantage of the commercial technology it discovered during a scheduled application contest last fall.

Steph Warren, VA's chief information officer and executive in charge of Information and Technology, said Tuesday at the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on Efficiency and Effectiveness of Federal Programs and the Federal Workforce hearing that the solicitations are part of a multitude of actions VA is taking to fix the scheduling problems.

Warren said the first acquisition will go through the T4 contract to improve the user and system interfaces of the existing scheduling application.

"The second one is the broader one. It's the replacement of the existing scheduling system with commercial product. We have an industry day next week. And then at the end of the month, we will sit down and have one-on-one interviews for feedback in terms of that engagement, and then that acquisition will go out," Warren said in an interview after the hearing. "We are looking at what are the right packages to use to put that bid out on the street. We are moving very aggressively, not only to make the improvements so we can relief to the folks on the line, but also to bring that commercial product in and interface it with the existing business system."

Contest winners

He said VA's desire to use a commercial scheduling technology will drive the acquisition path.

The agency already knows there are commercial applications that will meet its needs. VA launched a contest on the platform in January 2013, offering $3.05 million to software developers who could create new systems that schedule appointments in VA's nationwide health system.

In October, VA awarded prizes to three teams.

Health e Time, developed by three companies — MedRed LLC, BT and VISTA Enterprise Network — won the $1.8 million first place award for its "open source, medical scheduling software package designed to integrate with and augment the functionality of Open Source VistA."

VA said key features include a user-friendly graphical interface, support for multi-site appointment management and the integrated scheduling of ancillary resources and equipment.

Second place, and the $705,000 prize, went to Oroville H, which developed the OH Scheduler, an enterprisewide scheduling system built using state-of-the-art Web technology for VISTA.

Third place, and the $520,000 prize, went to HP Open Community Tea, developed by a team of four developers, which "enhances legacy VistA Scheduling through integration with other VistA packages requiring support, therefore reducing implementation risk. It contains a scheduling service oriented architecture (SOA) to establish an authoritative SOA service for cross-facility scheduling complexity, optimization and enterprise considerations. We have integrated commercial off the shelf (COTS) and open source software (OSS) products to provide functionality such as a scheduling engine and enterprise service bus (ESB)."

Warren said the contest serves two purposes as VA prepares these two new solicitations.

He said first, VA wanted to see if there were products already available that would meet its needs.

"The answer was yes. So we don't have to build it ourselves, which was a major breakthrough for the organization," Warren said. "The second piece was, in the process of doing the competes, we established and validated the data interfaces. So we know if we go with a commercial product, how do you hook it in. I'll share with you one of the primary reasons a commercial product acquisition fails is because the interfaces fail. You don't know what the connections are, and the costs go crazy."

Playing in the sandbox

The contest also helped VA create test and development sites for vendors, otherwise known as sandboxes, where vendors can prove the concept. He said sandboxes help drive down the risks to the agency.

"We know what the standards are. We have the test routines. We have the automated test sequences, and we also have the sandboxes where we can do that," Warren said. "That drives us to that outcome to bring in a commercial product to interface with that world-class VISTA system that we have today."

Warren said he didn't think VA could take the products that came from the contest and turn it into an acquisition.

"The acquisition is: A, the marketplace improved; b, we've shown we can do it. We have the tools in place to drive that risk down," he said. "And we want to make sure the best can play. Too often folks pre-select to something they want, and we want to make sure that is not the behavior. We want to get the best commercial product that will fit to the standards the team is looking for."