Ranking Member Steve Womack (R-AR) Opening Statement at Hearing Titled: “Software Update Required: COVID-19 Exposes Need for Federal Investments in Technology”

As Submitted for the Record:

Thank you, Chairman Yarmuth, for holding this hearing, and thank you to our witnesses for joining us today.

Federal information technology (IT) systems are critical to providing Americans with a wide range of government services and information. In the 21st century, it’s no secret that IT is fundamental to many different operations. These systems are aimed at improving program delivery, maximizing effectiveness and efficiency, and ensuring data security. If we cannot maintain and optimize this critical infrastructure, the federal government will be unable to execute one of its essential functions: providing crucial resources and services to the American people. We should never allow the delivery of veteran health care, social security benefits, or defense initiatives to fail because of outdated and faulty IT systems.

Unfortunately, current federal IT upgrade efforts are faltering due to missed deadlines, cost overruns, and inadequate outcomes, including operability failure and data breaches. While COVID-19 exposed additional deficiencies of federal IT systems, these shortages existed long before the current pandemic.

For example, in 2011, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Department of Defense (DOD) began an electronic health record (EHR) modernization initiative to create a single, shared system between the two departments. In 2013, and after spending more than $1 billion on the program, the VA and DOD announced they were abandoning the project with nothing to show for the money spent other than a painful lesson learned. This is not only a waste of taxpayer dollars, but, more disconcerting, it hurts our nation’s service members and veterans who depend on these health care services. This is the more upsetting part for me. Program indecision and mismanagement have resulted in us failing those who’ve served this country.

Where is this EHR effort at the VA today? The VA and DOD are trying this again with a new government contract from Cerner. This initiative is already nearly one year behind schedule and has yet to go live in even one medical center. I truly hope this story ends better than past VA efforts in the IT space.

And I’m not just picking on the VA’s challenges. There are other examples of how we have fallen short:

  • In 2014, the Office of Personnel Management’s data was breached, which resulted in approximately 21.5 million compromised records.
  • The HITECH Act, which was part of the 2009 stimulus package, allocated billions of dollars for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for IT development. To date, HHS still does not have an interoperable system and continues to struggle with siloed and fragmented data due to the different electronic health records vendors.

So, the question is, how do we make sure, going forward, all federal investments in IT modernization efforts result in the timely deployment of up-to-date, secure, and properly functioning systems?

Strong vetting and planning for proper IT implementation is key. It is imperative that these investments are met with rigorous oversight—yes, that is our job here in Congress—and agency accountability to ensure that the public is getting the best services available and taxpayer dollars are not wasted.

But, as I mentioned last week, there is another threat to federal investments in vital government programs such as IT modernization. That is our out-of-control deficit and debt. If we don’t confront the autopilot mandatory spending that is hurtling us towards a fiscal cliff, there won’t be any money left to fund a range of prerogatives.

Time is running out, and it’s essential that Congress directly address this problem. The Budget Committee must meet its duty and put together a budget to chart a new way forward. We need to get back to making the tough choices that will determine a brighter future. We have an obligation to current and future generations to ensure that critical programs don’t cease to exist.

With that, I look forward to hearing from our witnesses today, and I look forward to today’s discussion. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I yield back.