A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) finds that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) spent the majority of its $36.7 billion in COVID-19 relief funding to address three key areas – with digital services and IT efforts being two of them.
The agency’s focus on technology capabilities during the pandemic came in many different forms, from ramping up telework and telehealth efforts to strengthening its IT infrastructure to handle increased bandwidth requirements.
The other key area of spending was veterans’ health care, including paying for veterans to receive care at non-VA facilities during the pandemic due to the increased demand for emergency and urgent care.
The report comes as a result of the VA Transparency and Trust Act of 2021, which included a provision for GAO to review supplemental VA funding for COVID-19.
According to GAO, the VA received approximately $36.7 billion in COVID-19 relief funding between 2020 and 2021 from three different laws: the CARES Act; the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA); and the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA).
The VA had obligated approximately 99 percent of its funds from the CARES Act and FFCRA, and 56.9 percent of funds from ARPA, as of August 23, 2022.
Of the total $19.57 billion in VA CARES Act allocations, 11.2 percent of the funding – or $2.19 billion – was allocated for VA’s Office of Information Technology (OIT). OIT used $1.84 billion of this funding to sustain its IT efforts – including provisioning laptops and other devices to support expanded telework and telehealth – and $273.51 million to hire temporary staff to support COVID-19 efforts.
As for the $17.08 billion in ARPA funding, VA obligated $8.63 billion and expended $6.45 billion as of July 31, 2022. According to the VA data, the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) reallocated $1.43 billion (9.9 percent) from VHA to OIT, to support IT needs.
Notably, the VA took action to set up an information technology governance council in March 2020 to review proposed obligations of funding related to IT. OIT officials told GAO that the council allowed for “flexibility” in VA’s COVID-19 response, while maintaining proper oversight of funds.
“For example, once COVID-19 supplemental funds were allocated to OIT, its governance council reviewed justifications for proposed obligations,” GAO wrote. “After this review, the governance council made a final decision on whether or not to provide funding based on the justification provided. OIT officials told us having a governance council was important because it provided oversight of the cost projections and use of COVID-19 supplemental funds.”
With the council’s success, OIT officials said they would likely establish a similar governance council in a future public health emergency.
VA reviewed a draft of the report and provided technical comments, which GAO said it incorporated as appropriate.