New VA Secretary Robert McDonald laid out his plans Saturday for fixing the scandal-rocked Department of Veterans Affairs, telling the National Disabled American Veterans convention in Las Vegas “it’s an opportunity we can’t miss nor underestimate.”
Speaking to a veterans group for the first time since taking the reins of the agency, he said, “This is an opportunity for me to make a difference in the lives of veterans I care so much about.”
McDonald, a former Proctor and Gamble chief executive, Airborne Ranger and 1975 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., told many of the 4,000 Disabled American Veterans at the convention that one of his top priorities is to restore trust in the VA and its staff. Poor performance and misconduct won’t be tolerated, he said.
“We didn’t hold managers accountable for retaliation against whistleblowers,” he said.
“A vast majority of VA employees are deeply dedicated to the mission and VA’s core values. But when that’s not the case, and when there’s been a violation of trust of the nation or veterans, there will be accountability,” he said. “This is about restoring the trust to veterans, of our elected representatives and of all Americans.”
McDonald, 61, said that trust has eroded with long wait times for health care highlighted by cover-ups and false reporting at VA facilities in Phoenix, where he visited Friday. Similar problems have surfaced across the VA system where there are doctor shortages and a rising tide of veterans seeking health care.
He acknowledged that at least part of the problem was tied to performance bonuses VA officials received. In some cases, two sets of wait-time records were kept: the actual amount of time veterans waited for health care or appointments at VA facilities, and another set that was reported to the VA central office to falsely reflect wait-time goals had been met in order to receive performance bonuses.
He credited acting VA secretary Sloan Gibson with taking the first steps to correct problems by suspending all senior executive performance awards “to eliminate any inappropriate scheduling practices or behavior.” Gibson took over in the wake of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation in May after public outcry as scandals surfaced, and veterans’ complained of long waits for health care.
McDonald’s plan for reforming the VA includes:
—Updating an antiquated appointment scheduling system and acquiring a state-of-the-art commercial system
—Freeing up resources to reapply them back where the veteran prefers
—Conducting a comprehensive, independent audit of scheduling practices across the VA system beginning in October
—Building a more robust, continuous system for measuring patient satisfaction
—Requiring every medical center to conduct regular, monthly, in-person inspections of all their employees interacting with the scheduling staff
—Establishing a board of physicians to advise him on best practices in timely, quality health care
DAV National Commander Joseph W. Johnston responded to McDonald’s remarks, saying in a statement, “The Secretary outlined a clear, thoughtful agenda, one that reflects many of the steps that DAV has advocated: realistic funding levels; greater commitment to transparency; focusing incentives on patient outcomes and satisfaction.”
Johnston expressed concern about provisions in the $16.3 billion bill that President Barack Obama signed Thursday to include funding for veterans to seek timely care at facilities outside the VA system.
“No veteran should wait too long or travel too far for health care, but providing a referral and a voucher or plastic card will not ensure that veterans receive quality care unless the VA takes a strong, consistent approach to coordinating veterans’ care among various VA and non-VA providers,” Johnston said.
This was McDonald’s first address to a veterans service organization since he was confirmed by a 97-0 vote by the U.S. Senate on July 29.
Later Saturday, he toured the $1 billion VA Medical Center in North Las Vegas where some of those long waits have been blamed on a shortage of doctors.
After meeting with Reps. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., and Joe Heck, R-Nev., and touring the medical center with Director Isabel Duff and her staff, McDonald spoke to reporters, saying he was pleased that nearly half the staff are “veterans taking care of veterans.”
“The folks I spoke to today understand they are immensely fortunate to work in an organization, which we all consider to be the noblest and most-respected mission in government, and that is serving our nation’s veterans,” he said. “I am reminded of how critical it is that we all reaffirm our commitment to our mission and our values, and that doing that will rebuild trust with the American public.”
He said he has a 90-day plan to accomplish that goal “so I hope we can do it in 90 days but we’ll keep after it until we do it.”
He said the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System needs about 500 more doctors and medical staff but the VA in Phoenix needs twice as many.
“There’s more to be done here in Las Vegas and across the country,” McDonald said. “In the coming weeks, I will initiate a nationwide review of the culture and seek recommendations on structural improvements necessary for reinforcing our strong ethical environment across our entire health care system.”
Meanwhile, he said, VA employees must renew their commitment to the right values: ICARE, which stands for Integrity, Commitment, Advocacy, Respect and Excellence.
“I also think we need to get the stories out. The veterans service organizations, and veterans I talked to are receiving good care.
“We have to be very careful not to paint every VA employee with the same brush and the same paint, the same tar, the same feathers. The vast majority of employees are doing a great job and the veterans will tell you that,” he said. “Those employees who violate that trust, who have violated our values of ethics, they will be dealt with, with every measure of the new process that we have to follow.”
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.
Contact Keith Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0308. Find him on Twitter: @KeithRogers2.