The Department of Veterans Affairs is directing every chief information officer in the field to stop buying personal desktop printers, the first step to retiring these high-cost tools across the agency and replacing them with big multiuse printers.

VA spokeswoman Josephine Schuda said Nov. 29 that some regional and facility CIOs have informally gotten word of the policy shift although the Office of Information and Technology (OIT) has not yet issued a directive. The policy change came after OIT studied pilots at two facilities which have shown the value of buying and using desktop printers was less than using multiuse printers. The only exception is if an office can make a compelling case to buy one.

While OIT buys the printers, she said greater savings occur in the administrative budgets of the user when offices no longer have to purchase toner cartridges for these printers which are far more expensive than ink supplies for larger printers.

A shift away from desktop printers could save the VA $150 million over five years, money that could be used for other essential services for the veterans, VA CIO Roger Baker told reporters in a Nov. 23 conference call.

“There’s a significant piece of money that we save by moving to large-scale printers and away from desktop printers,” Baker said.

Baker said eliminating desktop printers is one of his top priorities. It is “moving forward, not yet policy but piloted,” he said.

This potential shift could become the model for other federal agencies now in a line-by-line hunt to shrink their budgets. The savings – in the mere millions – pales in comparison to the billions that the federal government must cut from its out-of-control deficit.

And embracing big printers instead of little ones could further enhance the Obama administration’s goal of going green in the federal government, lowering the use of paper products in the daily routine.

However, Baker issued this word of caution: “We’ve got to be careful to balance between pennywise and pound foolish. We have to make sure not to eliminate all desktop printers.”

The revolution in the printer industry is under consideration across government and in private industry, said Kevin Jackson, general manager of cloud services for NJVC LLC, an IT services firm supporting the federal government, including the intelligence community and Defense Department.

“There is a general trend across the entire government to consolidate on services like printing,” Jackson said. “It reduces capital expenditures, operational expenditures and increases the efficiencies of the infrastructure.”

Various services in the Defense Department have already eliminated individual printers, Jackson said.

“It’s actually best practices in the industries to have centralized printing,” Jackson said. “You can get high efficiencies on your infrastructure.”

And he adds, “The only thing surprising about the VA is that it hasn’t been done earlier.”

The VA has approximately 60,000 desktop printers but probably needs only about 5,000, Baker said.

In his conference call, Baker said the VA is working on taking down the costs of its infrastructure “so we can use those dollars where we have crying needs.”

He said eliminating printers is one of 15 projects he’s studying to shave infrastructure costs.

The VA is working hard to tighten its belt in many other ways. It did not ask for an IT budget increase in 2011 or 2012, Baker said. Instead, the agency has shifted money from nonessential projects and redistributed them to essential services such as Electronic Health Records – a joint project of the VA and the Defense Department in the process of standing up that will transition the medical records of active duty servicemen to veteran status at the VA.

Phasing out desktop printers still has a long way to go at the VA, said Baker who acknowledged he is still using a single printer at his own desk.

“Our intent is to squeeze on areas like this,” Baker said. “We are out to apply the dollars to better serve veterans. We are continuing to focus on cost reduction.”