Q: Tell us about your professional background.
A: I served in the U.S. Navy for 26 years, mostly practicing medicine as a board-certified oncologist. My military career culminated in the position of Deputy Chief Information Officer for the Military Health System (MHS). After retiring from the Navy, I worked for a mission and technology company called Agilex, and supported its efforts in providing healthcare IT services to the federal government.
Q: What prompted your move from medicine to healthcare IT?
A: While stationed in San Diego, I wrote and won a grant to establish a tertiary care center for breast cancer treatment that would serve most of southern California. To gauge how well the center was performing, I needed data to compare against national results. I developed an electronic health record (EHR) to capture this data. When the Surgeon General of the Navy learned of my efforts, he asked me to move to the Washington, DC, area and assist the MHS in its EHR development efforts. I accepted the position and became the clinical lead managing an IT portfolio of $500 million per year. Then I became the Deputy CIO for MHS.
Q: Do you still practice medicine?
A: I do not, and I must say the transition was interesting. Before moving from medicine to healthcare IT, I said to the Surgeon General of the Navy at the time “I think I am going to miss my practice.” He replied with words to the effect, “I was once in your shoes. I chose to look at it this way: You no longer have the one-on-one patient contact, but you hold the potential to affect the lives of many more people by improving healthcare delivery with technology.”
Q: Tell us why you founded AbleVets.
A: I wanted to establish a company staffed by Veterans who worked on behalf of Veterans. I established AbleVets in 2012 on a part-time basis while still working for Agilex. It wasn’t until 2015 that I focused on AbleVets full time. It was then that the company really took off.
Q: What is AbleVets’ mission?
A: It is “Improving the lives of Veterans, Active Duty and their families.” We fulfill this mission in the federal projects we perform, bringing innovation to the delivery of care and services for Veterans and Active Duty through our work supporting the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Department of Defense (DoD). And, we fulfill our mission internally through our hiring practices. We are committed to hiring, training and staffing AbleVets with Veterans.
Q: In creating AbleVets, what was the market opportunity you saw?
A: Many federal contractors approach IT from a technological point of view. Their perspective is: “I know IT, so I can perform any IT project.” I wanted to focus on healthcare first. Thus, I built AbleVets on a foundation of clinical leadership, and we lead with that clinical leadership and medical informatics. The programs we select and the opportunities we seek are nearly all healthcare related.
Our approach focuses first on understanding the healthcare objectives of a program and the related business constraints. We always look for the most challenging healthcare-related problems and then dive in to gain a true appreciation of all their facets. We like the hard problems — and we are very good at solving them. Part of our advantage is possessing a shared language with the clinical SMEs at the various agencies with which we work. Speaking the same language allows us to communicate in a way that IT specialists cannot.
Q: How did AbleVets gain this communications advantage?
A: Besides myself, there are other physicians on AbleVets’ staff as well as many other individuals with a clinical background. One physician is Dr. Wendell Ocasio, our Chief Technology Officer. He holds engineering and medical degrees from Harvard University and served as chief architect of the DoD’s electronic health record, AHLTA. Our team also includes Dr. Mark Turner, a retired Navy nephrologist, who holds a master’s degree in public health. His focus is population health, safety and quality of care.
Our staff also includes Veterans who have significant experience with military and Veteran healthcare and Fortune 100 leaders from both the government and civilian sectors. This mix enables us to understand issues comprehensively and formulate optimal solutions. Plus, our understanding of federal regulatory, compliance and procedural constraints enables us to deliver timely solutions. Our government ratings say it all.
Q: What contracts does AbleVets hold?
A: We launched the company with a contract with Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield. Then we won a spot on the Transformation Twenty-One Total Technology Next Generation (T4NG) contract vehicle. It was a remarkable accomplishment as we only had five employees at the time. After that, we won the SeaPort Enhanced (Seaport-e) multiple award contract vehicle, GSA Schedule 70, VETS2 and CIO-SP3.
Q: In what program areas is AbleVets involved?
A: Many. From an access-to-care point of view, we are modernizing VA’s online appointment scheduling application. This initiative is one of three the White House has identified as a priority in using innovation to improve Veteran care. Another area of focus is building information systems to support continuity of medical care at private sector facilities in those situations where VA’s capacity to deliver care at its fixed facilities is exceeded. We support a portfolio of VA information systems including a large multi-agency program called the Joint Legacy Viewer and the Community Viewer. The Joint Legacy Viewer combines the VA and DoD healthcare records, while the Community Viewer portion allows authorized private sector healthcare professionals to access Veterans’ records and thereby optimize the care delivered.
Cybersecurity is another program area in which we are very active and are protecting Veteran data. One operational area involves active, hands-on daily work to protect systems via threat analysis, intrusion detection and other activities. The other operational area is a strategy and modernization role where we are assisting VA in changing its system development processes. Here, the focus is on proactively building security capabilities, such as scans, into the programs during the development lifecycle.
Q: What are AbleVets’ biggest challenges?
A: Rapid growth and the concomitant staffing needs new contract work has created. To put our growth into perspective, we have quadrupled our size in the past year. We seek great people who can further our mission, regardless of area of expertise. We want individuals who share our culture of ethics, quality and service. I personally believe that ethics plays a significant role in our successful partnering with other firms and our relationship with the government. Integrity is a key reason why we win – and keep winning – work. Our customers want to keep working with us because of the way we do business.
Q: How many individuals does AbleVets employ?
A: Right now, we’re at about 250. Based on our projected growth, we hope to hire 150 new employees between now and the end of 2018. It is an ambitious effort, so we are creating pipelines with Veteran-focused organizations and training programs serving Veterans. Currently, Veterans comprise about 15 to 20 percent of our workforce.
Q: How do you compete with the “big” contractors when it comes to hiring Veterans?
A: We are a Veteran-owned company and, as I mentioned previously, many staff members are Veterans, too. We have an internal employee resource group (ERG), specifically the Military Veteran’s ERG, that focuses on honoring, recognizing and supporting Veterans and servicemembers both within AbleVets and in our local communities. Plus, our tight-knit family-like culture – that of a small business – is outstanding and offers advantages not always available in big firms.
Q: What does the future look like for AbleVets and its employees?
A: The future is bright. We have a vision for the company we want to become and a strategy in place to achieve it. At the center of this vision is service for our Active Duty and Veterans. The core of our strategy is to continue to provide quality improvements through Health IT and hire as many Veterans as possible to fill our growing needs. In addition, our corporate structure and business philosophy reward risk taking to advance innovation and expansion. We have and will continue to take risks. But, at the end of the day, it is our employees that give me the greatest optimism. Our talented staff members are continuously engaged on ways to improve and protect the wellbeing of servicemembers and Veterans through our client services, make us more efficient to deliver and enhance our culture to create the best employee experience. With this foundation, I believe even more success lies ahead.