This year’s report identified 32 areas of concern. Among them was the Department of Veterans Affairs’ $55 billion health network, which was at the center of a nationwide scandal last year involving falsified wait-time data. The VA needs to address problems with timeliness and quality of care within the system, the GAO said.
Other issues for the VA include retaliation against whistleblowers, poor staff training, undeserved bonuses, and antiquated computer systems, according to auditors.
“These risks to the timeliness, cost-effectiveness, quality and safety of veterans’ health care, along with persistent weaknesses we have identified in recent years, raises serious concerns about VA’s management and oversight of its health care system,” the GAO said.
The VA scandal came to light last year amid allegations that veterans died while waiting for care at a VA hospital in Phoenix. Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned shortly after an inspector general’s report exposed the problem as a nationwide.
VA Secretary Robert McDonald took over the department in July and implemented plans to improve customer service by hiring thousands of doctors and nurses to help reduce wait times, among other actions. Congress also approved legislation last year allowing veterans to obtain care at non-VA medical centers when they wait too long for appointments or live far from the agency’s nearest clinic.
VA spokesman James Hutton said Wednesday that the department is committed to becoming a “model agency.” He added that the VA is a “cutting-edge industry” in many respects, but that “in other areas, we realize we need to make significant improvements.”
Aside from addressing the VA, the report also cited the government for poor management of its roughly $80 billion in annual IT investments, saying the projects “too frequently fail or incur cost overruns and schedule slippages while contributing little to mission-related outcomes.”
The GAO highlighted several IT projects that resulted in waste, including $127 million the VA spent to update its scheduling software before scrapping its plans and a weather-satellite network that cost $5 billion to develop before the Obama administration disbanded the system.
The report also mentioned HealthCare.gov, the online insurance exchange that the government spent hundreds of millions of dollars to create under the Affordable Care Act. The site failed during its initial launch in 2013.
The Department of Health and Human Services has fixed HealthCare.gov’s bugs, and more than 7 million Americans have enrolled in insurance plans through the portal, according to the latest statistics.
The Office of Management and Budget, which oversees federal IT programs, said it has begun initiatives to address the issues mentioned in the report, including by providing managers with training and tools that private sector companies use for buying and developing IT systems.
“As we move forward, collaboration is critical to driving continued progress, and we look forward to working with agencies, GAO, and our partners in Congress to improve IT acquisition and operation management,” OMB said in a statement on Wednesday.
Other problems identified in the report included Medicare’s susceptibility to improper payments, which the GAO first named as a high risk in 1990, and gaps in the nation’s weather-satellite data, an issue that first made the list last year.
Lawmakers from both parties encouraged the government to address the concerns listed in the report.
“We need a better process to get agencies to implement the recommendations GAO makes,” Senate Government Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) said in a joint statement with other lawmakers on Wednesday. “If they do, we will have a government that is far more efficient and effective — a goal we all share.”
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said the process is a “shared responsibility,” adding that Congress must work with the Office of Management and Budget and other executive branch agencies to reduce the risks.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the high-risk report did not mention HealthCare.gov.