Sen. John Tester, D-Mont., ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, is asking James Gfrerer, the newly confirmed CIO at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), for his list of priorities to improve the agency’s IT operations.

In a letter dated Jan. 11, the senator cited a host of IT-related challenges facing the VA that should top the CIO’s to-do list.

“The operation of VA’s Office of Information and Technology (OI&T) has been under severe, well-deserved scrutiny in recent years,” wrote Tester. “There is no doubt that insufficient resources, a chronic lack of transparency, and an inability to effectively prioritize countless competing objectives have led to serious questions about VA’s ability to meet the standard of technology necessary to serve our nation’s veterans.”

Tester highlighted his main concerns with VA’s IT, including recent struggles with disbursing GI Bill benefits and the department’s ongoing electronic health record (EHR) modernization effort.

On the issue of GI Bill benefits, Tester criticized the agency’s failure to implement software on schedule and the lack of information about the issue from VA to Congress. The senator urged Gfrerer to name permanent staff and make sure the department has enough front-line staff, while offering assistance on securing new authorities or funding to finish the project.

“VA cannot continue to operate in a technology environment in which only the largest and latest crisis drives the agenda,” wrote Tester.

On EHR modernization efforts, Tester stressed the importance of proper management, and allowing new projects to go forward while maintaining the existing VistA system. “EHR modernization cannot be allowed to fail, and your leadership is essential if VA is to ultimately achieve a truly interoperable electronic health record for veterans,” said Tester.

In addition to these two major programs, Tester highlighted projects like human resources systems, veterans benefits, financial management, and the Caregiver Assistance Program.

Tester also called on Gfrerer to take a bigger role in shaping the President’s budget request for IT at the VA, saying that “Congress cannot adequately fulfill its constitutional responsibility to fund the department if it does not have an accurate assessment of OI&T’s true needs.”

Sen. Tester requested that Gfrerer send a prioritized list of projects, metrics for those projects, and comment on VA’s IT process management.

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