In the wake of a data breach at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) that exposed the personal information of 46,000 veterans, Deputy CIO and Principal Assistant Secretary Dominic Cussatt highlighted data security and privacy to serve the veteran community as a key tenet of the agency’s transformation efforts.

Without directly commenting on the Financial Services Center breach that occurred as malicious actors attempted to divert payments to community healthcare providers for veterans’ medical treatment, the deputy CIO spoke highly of VA’s data privacy and security efforts. He listed seamless and secure interoperability of data as one of VA’s digital transformation objectives, explaining the agency’s dedication to data privacy.

“VA has probably one of the largest caches of data in the world for the care of our veterans and their families and we need to make sure that data gets to who needs it when they need it, it remains intact as it travels there, and is secure,” Cussatt said at a House Oversight and VA Digital Modernization event today. “We take securing our veterans’ personal private data very seriously.”

He explained that the data must be interoperable between agencies as VA partners with other Federal entities, such as the Department of Defense on the electronic health record modernization initiative, to provide vets with the services they need. “We want their data to help them,” Cussatt said. “So, we need to make sure we have an infrastructure in place that gets it where it needs to go, interfaces as it needs to.”

Cussatt continued that as the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a spike in virtual services, data security and interoperability have been critical to supporting the mission. He said that years of modernization efforts leading up to the pandemic prepared VA for new telehealth and digital service delivery challenges.

“We were postured to do all of this securely and make sure we were able to support telehealth and keep personal health information and then personally identifiable information secure,” Cussatt asserted, “because we had those underpinnings and those security controls and security services in place to defend the network, monitor the network, and secure the systems that were carrying all this very precious information.”

On adapting to new needs of veterans during the pandemic, he also predicted that the department is never going back to the way service delivery functioned before. He touched on a recently announced, Apple-sponsored telehealth initiative to supply veterans with tablets to “have a private discussion with their physician and share information and health information and they don’t have to worry about it.”

According to a September 15 press release, VA and Apple are providing qualifying veterans with cellular-enabled iPads to access telehealth services as a part of a program that currently helps more than 50,000 veterans access virtual care.

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Katie Malone
Katie Malone
Katie Malone is a MeriTalk Staff Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.