Reid: VA hospital failing to fill promise

WASHINGTON — The Southern Nevada veterans medical center that opened two years ago at a cost of $1 billion to build and equip is failing to fulfill its promise because of VA scandal, and because it was not properly outfitted, Sen. Harry Reid, said Tuesday.

The Nevada Democrat expressed frustration but also a measure of hope shortly before the Senate voted unanimously to confirm new Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald. The former Procter & Gamble chief executive, who is 61, was given the job to fix the department slammed by long patient waits for care and VA workers covering up the delays.

The North Las Vegas complex was “unquestionably probably without exaggerating, the finest veterans hospital in the country” when it was dedicated in August 2012, Reid, the Senate majority leader, said in a speech. The hospital boasted 100 beds, a nursing home and ambulatory care center. “But more importantly it was a precious resource to veterans in the state of Nevada,” he said.

But “in spite of all the happy talk,” he said, veterans in Nevada, as in other parts of the country, found themselves on long waiting lists to see doctors at the center. About 2,000 patients were on a waiting list 90 days or more to get an appointment in Southern Nevada, he said, and “That’s just unacceptable.”

For a time, Reid and Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., gave the VA a pass in Southern Nevada, saying the medical center was experiencing growing pains not unusual for a major facility.

But as the scandal surrounding veterans care expanded, and as complaints surfaced about the North Las Vegas center, each toughened his rhetoric as did other Nevada representatives in Congress.

Reid said Tuesday the VA’s “big new fancy facility in Las Vegas is ill-equipped. Even though it has all these nice things in it, it is not equipped because we didn’t get the money to furnish it the way it should have been.”

Reid did not elaborate. Aides said later Las Vegas veterans brought worries to him while the hospital was being built about possible shortfalls on the project.

The VA realized during construction that the emergency room would be too small, and it has embarked on a $16 million expansion. Further, an administration building for the complex still is being built, with hospital managers now working out of the facility’s community living center.

Heller, who sits on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said McDonald committed to improving access to care as well as improving the disability claims system. “I look forward to holding him accountable to those promises.”

McDonald has said reducing a backlog of disability claims would be among his priorities. The VA regional office in Reno, which handles cases throughout Nevada, has the dubious distinction of being the slowest in the nation, with clerks taking an average of 339.6 days to complete a compensation claim. The average among all VA offices is 263 days, still not a speedy pace according to lawmakers.

The 97-0 Senate vote to confirm McDonald comes as Congress appears poised to approve a $17 billion compromise bill to refurbish the VA and improve veterans’ health care. The bill is intended to help veterans avoid long waits for health care, hire more doctors and nurses to treat them, and make it easier to fire senior executives at the agency.

Reid said it was important that Congress act on the reform bill as quickly as possible to give McDonald and his team “the resources they need to ensure American veterans are getting the care we’ve promised them.”

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said McDonald is faced with “a truly monumental task” as he takes over an agency that provides health care to nearly 9 million enrolled veterans and disability compensation to nearly 4 million veterans.

Even if Congress passes the compromise reform bill, the VA faces a host of other serious challenges, including a high suicide rate among veterans and treatment for thousands of veterans coping with sexual assaults, said Murray, a former Veterans Affairs chairwoman.

The VA also faces “an uphill battle” as it works to eliminate veterans’ homelessness and a lengthy backlog for disability claims, Murray said. “Mr. McDonald will have to grapple with these, and many more issues, all on day one,” she said.

McDonald said at a confirmation hearing last week that he intends to act quickly “to deliver the needed reforms our veterans deserve.”

His plans include laying out a veterans-centered vision for the department and improving communication within the vast agency, which includes more than 300,000 employees in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. McDonald also said he will host frequent video conferences with employees and travel to field offices around the country.

A former Army Ranger, McDonald said taking care of veterans is personal for him. His father served in the Army Air Corps after World War II, and his wife’s father was shot down over Europe and survived harsh treatment as a prisoner of war. Another relative was exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam and receives care from the VA, McDonald said.

Las Vegas Review-Journal writer Keith Rogers and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Find him on Twitter: @STetreaultDC.