Approximately 82 percent of the Veteran’s Health Administration’s (VHA) resilient high-frequency radio networks (RHFRN) across Veteran’s Affairs (VA) facilities are not operational, the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) revealed in a report that was publicly released last week.
The agency’s RHFRN is intended to serve as a last-resort, emergency communications system during disasters, but the VA OIG’s April 6 report finds that from January to October 2022, the RHFRN was not able to make successful communication at 145 of 184 sites nationwide.
The VA OIG found that the system’s failure at medical sites across the United States was due to inadequate acceptance, installation, system support, and oversight by VA personnel.
In January 2015, the VA awarded an $8.5 million, five-year contract for high-frequency voice and data communication and linkage to telephone networks enabling radio-to-telephone communication. By January 2020, the contractor was required to furnish, install, test, and certify a fully functional RHFRN at approximately 200 VHA facilities nationwide and provide training for VA staff.
According to the report, the VA OIG received a complaint in March 2020 stating that the RHFRN system was not functioning as intended. The agency watchdog then conducted an audit to determine if VA provided effective oversight of the installation and deployment of the VHA RHFRN to ensure reliable communications capabilities during crises and natural disasters.
“The OIG substantiated the complainant’s allegation that the RHFRN was not functioning as intended,” the audit says. “VA’s goal of establishing a last-resort communications capability by January 2020 has, more than three years later, not resulted in a nationwide functional system.”
The audit team sampled 21 facilities and found that 17 of those were not operational as of October 2021.
The team then estimated that 82 percent of locations did not have a fully operational RHFRN capable of two-way voice communication due to the equipment needing repair, service, or replacement; necessary equipment for radio operation was not on-site; the radio transmissions could not be heard; or there was no staff at the facility who could operate the equipment.
In October 2022, the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) director provided documentation showing that approximately 145 of 184 of sites – 79 percent – did not make any successful communication since January 2022.
This is consistent with the OIG’s independent analysis from October 2021, in which the audit team estimated that 150 of the 184 RHFRN sites – 82 percent – were not operational.
The audit team also found that the OEM did not adequately oversee the acceptance and installation of the RHFRN. In addition, the OEM did not sufficiently monitor the required training for operators at each site.
After spending over $8.5 million, VA is considering a second contract to assess, repair, complete, and maintain the RHFRN, the report says.
“This delay in the implementation and the lack of operability of the RHFRN leave VA without dependable emergency RHFRN communications,” the VA OIG said. “Without a functional RHFRN, reestablishing vital communications with VA facilities during emergencies could be problematic or impossible, which would disrupt necessary services related to veterans’ and VA employees’ health and safety.”
The VA OIG made six recommendations to both the VA’s under secretary for health and the assistant deputy under secretary for health, as well as the executive director at the VHA’s OEM:
- Ensure medical facilities monitor RHFRN training and staffing levels and maintain enough trained staff to operate the system;
- Ensure that the appropriate stakeholders know the program office responsible for the RHFRN and understand the roles and responsibilities for the program;
- Finalize the VHA RHFRN Operations Plan;
- If additional RHFRN equipment is purchased, work with the contracting officer to provide guidance to facility representatives to ensure they verify radios are fully functional before acceptance;
- Conduct a risk assessment and provide guidance for the placement of RHFRNs within facilities and any needed monitoring schedules; and
- Ensure sites can obtain repairs for broken or inoperable RHFRN equipment.
The under secretary for health concurred or concurred in principle with all of the VA OIG’s recommendations.