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Senators signal quick confirmation of Washington’s Kurt DelBene, ex-Microsoft executive tapped to lead VA technology office

UPDATED: Thu., Dec. 9, 2021

Ex-Microsoft executive Kurt DelBene is expected to gain quick Senate confirmation as the top technology official at the Department of Veterans Affairs.  (Spokesman-Review)
Ex-Microsoft executive Kurt DelBene is expected to gain quick Senate confirmation as the top technology official at the Department of Veterans Affairs. (Spokesman-Review)

WASHINGTON – A former Microsoft executive tapped by President Joe Biden to serve as the top technology official at the Department of Veterans Affairs appeared before a Senate panel for an unusually brief confirmation hearing Wednesday, signaling a swift confirmation is likely.

Kurt DelBene, who worked as an executive vice president at the Redmond, Washington-based tech giant until September, was nominated Nov. 3 to serve as the VA’s chief information officer and assistant secretary for information and technology. If confirmed by the Senate, DelBene would play a key role in the rollout of a new electronic health record system, along with efforts to modernize the department’s cybersecurity, financial management and logistics systems.

A recent Spokesman-Review investigation found that problems with the new health record system at Spokane’s Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center, which has served as a pilot site for the program since October 2020, have delayed care, threatened patient safety and left employees exhausted and demoralized. While DelBene would not be directly in charge of that program, he told senators he intends to be involved when he can help.

“The department is undertaking a large and complex replacement of their electronic medical record system,” DelBene said in his opening remarks. “Excellence in delivering on the core mission of the VA depends on success of these systems transformations. That’s what drives me to step up and serve at this critical moment.”

Between stints in the private sector, DelBene – who is married to Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash. – served in the Obama administration from December 2013 to July 2014 to lead an effort to fix HealthCare.gov, the faulty website that let Americans sign up for insurance plans through the Affordable Care Act.

The perfunctory hearing took less than an hour Wednesday, with seven of the panel’s 18 members showing up. After Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., introduced DelBene, she chose not to ask any questions.

“It is well past time that the VA move into the 21st century, and Mr. DelBene is uniquely qualified to lead this effort,” Murray said, adding her top priority is resolving problems with the system in Spokane. “There’s absolutely no reason in 2021 that the United States of America should not be able to deploy a state-of-the-art electronic health record system, and when it comes to the health of our veterans, the VA needs to be doing everything it can to get this right.”

The three Republicans there – Sens. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Jerry Moran of Kansas – indicated they support DelBene’s nomination. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, the committee’s Democratic chairman, asked just one question before he and Murray left to cast votes.

“It’s very clear that the two of you have the utmost confidence in Mr. DelBene,” Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said to Murray and Tester before asking DelBene why he wouldn’t lead the effort to fix the flawed rollout in Spokane.

“I’m just wondering why not,” Hirono said, “because you’re the guy – you’re the IT guy. Why aren’t you in charge?”

DelBene pointed to a VA announcement a week earlier that outlined a new management structure for the project, headed by a “program executive director” supervising three other officials, one of whom would report to him.

“Having said that, I believe that there’s an opportunity for me to take the experience that I’ve had in the private sector and in working on the Affordable Care Act’s website to help,” DelBene said. “And I think you can count on me jumping in, getting involved with those teams to really see every place that I can provide my background, my understanding and help there.”

None of the senators asked DelBene how he would comply with federal ethics rules and avoid a potential conflict of interest after leaving Microsoft, which contracts with VA.

After he sold between $5 million and $25 million in Microsoft stock in September, his wife apparently missed a deadline to report the sale, though she was later cleared by the House Ethics Committee.

Roger Baker, who served as the VA’s chief information officer in 2009-13, said while DelBene has shown himself to be a capable tech executive and his stint in government would serve him well, he would still face a learning curve. While running a business concerned with profit and loss is relatively simple math, Baker said, running a major government office – contending with politics and federal regulations – is more akin to calculus.

“This is a very high-powered corporate individual,” he said. “There’s a lot of optimism amongst those of us that have been in that job that he’s going to be awesome there, and I think there’s a lot of reason for that. But government is different.”

Moran, the panel’s top Republican, ended the hearing by saying Tester – who had left the room – intended to move forward quickly with DelBene’s nomination. After the committee approves the nomination, it will advance to a final vote in the full Senate.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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