Rethinking Healthcare

VA scandal gives proprietary software a bad name

Posting in Government

Contractors can still be hired under an open source model, but the software that emerges from that contract is owned by the agency, and can be shared through an open source license with state and local governments, even with businesses and individuals. Questions of compatibility, and interoperability, become transparent and easier to solve.

After launching ZDNet Healthcare one of the first trends I covered was the concern of former VA employees over the agency's move from its homegrown VistA software to contracts with proprietary vendors.

This was done against the backdrop of a doubling of the VA's IT budget. The budget is continuing to rise.

It may have been that arguments over open source vs. proprietary solutions were the tip of the iceberg.

VA Watchdog got the exclusive story last week, two reports from the VA's Inspector General detailing charges that former VA CIO Robert Howard was having an affair with a subordinate and that his own personal assistant was employing relatives at the agency.

The subordinate, Katherine Adair Martinez, remains a deputy assistant secretary. The personal assistant retired in April.

The report is heavily redacted, and the agency's review is continuing.

The reports "are both worth reading if you want to get a look at what can only be called corruption at the highest levels of the VA," writes Larry Scott of VA Watchdog.

The reports also put a different gloss over current debates within the agency over a 2007 contract to Cerner for upgrading the VA's lab computers to its PathNet system.

Contracting, by its nature, offers many opportunities for corruption of all kinds. A do it yourself approach may be corruptible, but at the end of the day you own what you have made, and whatever you think of the software the development of the VA's VistA software has not been a school for scandal.

With the rise of open source this make-or-buy decision is faced by all levels of government. It's separate from any questions regarding health reform. Should government agencies be building their own software platforms using open source tools or contracting that work out to proprietary vendors?

Contractors can still be hired under an open source model, but the software that emerges from that contract is owned by the agency, and can be shared through an open source license with state and local governments, even with businesses and individuals. Questions of compatibility, and interoperability, become transparent and easier to solve.

Vendors will often claim their tools are ready-made, but some customization is almost always required.

It is time to ask the question. Who should own the govenment's health care code?

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure