The Veterans Affairs Department currently supports roughly 140,000 teleworking employees per day—heaps more than the 30,000 to 40,000 that worked remotely daily prior to the pandemic.
Over the last couple months, the agency swiftly switched into gear providing personnel with technological capabilities and equipment that now underpin the new and necessary socially distant posture, and according to VA’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for IT and Deputy Chief Information Officer Dominic Cussatt, deliberate modernization efforts that predated the pandemic enabled the agency to rapidly adjust to its remote-working needs.
“Since the COVID crisis broke back in the middle of March or early April, we expanded our capabilities in weeks, doing things that would typically take us months or even years. We really scrambled and looked at what our customers needed and got the remote work and remote capabilities in place, working very closely with our industry partners,” Cussatt said during a virtual panel hosted by FCW Wednesday. “And all of the work we did in our digital transformation really helped make sure we had an infrastructure that could accept all of these enhanced capabilities, and scale to what we needed to get to to support a very sudden and very abrupt remote workforce.”
Cussatt detailed—down to the numbers—the initial outcomes of a range of early pivots the agency pursued to support both its workforce and veterans during the global health crisis, and shared how insiders plan to continue to boost its capacities, even beyond the pandemic.
VA is America’s second largest federal agency and boasts massive size and scope. Cussatt noted that the agency has an annual budget of more than $220 billion and encompasses more than 400,000 federal employees in the U.S. and abroad. That personnel serves almost “20 million U.S. veterans at any given time,” Cussatt said, adding that the agency includes more than 170 VA medical centers or hospitals, more than 1,200 outpatient facilities, 56 regional benefits offices and 141 veteran cemeteries.
“So, you know, during this unprecedented crisis—this 100-year pandemic—we had to answer to the COVID response,” Cussatt said. “And all during the answering of the COVID remediation, we had to continue to maintain a high quality of services across our very large enterprise.”
About four years ago, the agency started to embark on a hefty digital transformation strategy to modernize and innovate VA’s capabilities. The strategy embraces five imperatives to drive outcomes, which include exceptional customer service, IT modernization, strategic sourcing, IT workforce transformation, and seamless and secure interoperability. And the work done via the strategy so far, to Cussatt, paid off when COVID-19 hit.
“We’ve already blocked in the hundreds of millions of malware attempts through April of this year,” Cussatt explained. “And we have in any given time ongoing 45 or more prioritized cybersecurity projects to up our game and increase our cyber security posture.”
As mentioned earlier, the agency now supports those 140,000 teleworking employees, and going forward, Cussatt said VA will continue to build out capacity to at least double that number—“so that we’re ready if this should linger on or we have resurgence.” In the course of early COVID-19 remediation, the agency had to quickly send employees the equipment necessary for remote work and visits with veterans. To that end, VA has shipped out more than 16,000 laptops and 7,500 iPhones to those in need, and also and onboarded 15,000 new hires in the Veterans Health Administration to provide increased critical care amid the pandemic.
“And we’re not stopping there,” Cussat said. “We have orders pending for up to a quarter of a million laptops—because not only do we need to enable a workforce who didn’t have laptops previously, perhaps they had desktops that aren’t as amenable to being taken home, but we want to upgrade some of the older equipment, so that they have equipment that can take advantage of collaboration software and telehealth capabilities.”
The agency has now tripled its telehealth and doubled its bandwidth capabilities and capacities, he noted, which is essential to serving veterans safely as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. While the agency totaled about 10,000 visits over VA Video Connect in early March, by early May, it had held more than 100,000. “That’s a nearly tenfold increase in the video and telehealth capabilities that we’ve been able to offer to our veterans, so they can stay safe at home and see a physician and get the care that they need without putting themselves at risk by visiting a hospital where there might be COVID-infected patients,” Cussatt said. Putting it another way, he noted that January saw on average about 2,000 visits per day via VA Video Connect, which spiked to more than 25,000 daily visits in May.
“Our ultimate goal is to have 50% of the traffic routed through the cloud,” Cussatt said. “So a lot of the digital transformation work we did to create a virtual cloud environment for the VA with some of our industry partners has paid off—that environment was ready to go and ready for us to scale up to support telehealth, remote work, and even will help us support things like for benefits, telecounseling, and for our appeals process, telehearings.”
VA’s workforce can also tap into a range of teleconferencing tools, including WebEx, which has seen an increase in usage with nearly 16,000 new accounts since April 1.
But VA employees aren’t the only ones accessing new or heightened capabilities. Members of the agency’s Vet Text Team recently produced the “I am here” application, which Cussatt noted is a secure messaging system, or SMS tool that enables veterans to check in for appointments remotely from their phones. Further, the agency’s Annie App for Clinicians, is also continuing to grow in usage during the health emergency, as well as facility-focused apps, which help veteran figure out the best and closest options they have located near them to get their appropriate care. Cussat added that the agency is working to develop more, similar veteran-facing tools that come “right to their cellphone or right to their laptop, and you know, we can touch them directly through the IT services.
And COVID-19 also sparked the agency’s creation of its first customer-facing chatbot.
“We’ve seen increased calls to the VA with questions about coronavirus, and symptoms and treatment, so a lot of the questions are repetitive and common,” Cussatt said. “So, we created a chatbot so that the veterans can get quick, easy answers to their questions without having to wait online for someone to pick up the phone. We’re continuing to build out those chat bot capabilities, and we’ll see that mature and evolve over time.”
He added that most of the work that was done to introduce new or enhance current tools and services came to fruition through existing contract vehicles, which contributed to the speediness of their release. And while all the capabilities Cussatt detailed were rendered necessary amid the pandemic, the deputy CIO said the agency aims for them to persist way beyond it.
“We have a lot of veterans in remote environments—it’s very hard for them to get to a brick and mortar facility, they have to travel many many miles,” Cussatt said. “So this will be a force multiplier to enable us to service them more conveniently and from the comfort of their own home.”