Four years ago, Sen. Mark R. Warner enlisted the private sector to help Arlington National Cemetery, where poor record keeping led to a series of embarrassing problems, including misplaced and mishandled remains.
Now he's calling for an even larger mobilization to assist the Veterans Health Administration, rocked by scandals that include scheduling gimmicks and secret waiting lists.
In a letter this week to President Obama, Warner suggested a quick strike – mobilizing high-tech experts from Northern Virginia and elsewhere to assess technology issues at the VA within 60 to 90 days.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned last week, and since then lawmakers and advocacy groups have been debating the way forward. Warner's strategy falls in the category of free help from smart people. The private sector experts would provide a pro bono assessment of the VA's information systems and business processes.
"We're in," said Bobbie Greene Kilberg, president and CEO of the Northern Virginia Technology Council, a trade association that serves about 1,000 companies and organizations, and took on the Arlington challenge.
Kilberg said it's impossible to know what the VA solutions might be, but if it compares to Arlington, it may mean more than a technology fix. The cemetery had problems with business flow, from the time someone called to begin a burial to the interment.
The VA, she said, presents a much bigger challenge than Arlington, but she's certain that members of the council will want to offer their help.
"We need to see how this evolves," she said. "There are a lot of facets."
The initiative also received support from Craig Quigley, executive director of the Hampton Roads Military and Federal Facilities Alliance.
"I realize it won't be a silver bullet for everything," he said, "but if it is a step in the right direction, I'm all over it. I think it's a great deal."
In an interview, Warner said he wasn't limiting his request to Northern Virginia, the bedrock of the state's tech sector. Executives from Silicon Valley, private hospital administrators and others might want to weigh in. The key is speed and practicality.
"The challenge is not turning this into a giant committee that takes forever," he said. "This is a discrete data management problem. It doesn't need a nine-month study."
Separately, Warner also suggested to Obama that a larger look at the VA is warranted.
"The time has come for the creation of a nonpartisan, top-level commission to conduct a thoughtful and thorough examination of the VA, with a specific deadline for recommending ways that we might transform the VA into a 21st century organization that truly keeps our nation's commitments to its military men and women," he said.
Meanwhile. Sen. Tim Kaine is supporting legislation that attacks VA issues on several fronts.
It would allow the VA secretary to immediately remove senior executives based on poor job performance while maintaining due process for those employees. To reduce wait times, it would strengthen the VA's ability to bring in doctors, nurses and other health care professionals where shortages have been identified.
And along the lines of what Warner suggested, it would require the Obama administration to create a commission to look at VA health care access and recommend actions to bolster capacity. A report would be required within 90 days of the commission's first meeting.
©2014 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)