SPARKS — New Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald said Tuesday that the agency “failed in a number of ways” in providing services to the nation’s veterans.
“We need to do better,” he said. “Much better. And we will. At Reno and at VA facilities across this country, veterans always, always-always, come first.”
McDonald also promised to hold accountable those agency officials who opted to punish whistle blowers rather than solve the serious problems brought to their attention.
“It’s simple,” he said. “Those who haven’t performed, who haven’t delivered results honestly, or who have retaliated against whistle blowers, will be held accountable. Period.”
After visiting Reno area VA facilities following his morning remarks, McDonald spoke to the media about improvements that have been implemented for veterans in the region, including the allocation of $2.3 million in new funding to help improve access to care.
While not characterizing the change as an improvement, he introduced Kathy Malin, who has taken over as acting director of the Reno regional office of the VA as of July 9. The previous director, Ed Russell, is on leave, McDonald said.
“We have a new leadership team here,” McDonald said. “Kathy is going to be the leader here until we tell you otherwise.”
He did not elaborate on Russell’s status, saying employees have due process rights.
The change had not previously been disclosed by the VA until mentioned by McDonald.
Both U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Rep Dina Titus, D-Nev., have called for Russell’s resignation.
McDonald said the Reno office hired 20 claims processors in March, reducing waits to 169 days for a decision, an improvement from the 357-day wait time in February 2013 when wait times were at their worst.
While the new VA funding approved by Congress will be a major help in improving the delivery of health care, McDonald said the agency also needs to embark on a major recruitment effort to hire doctors, nurses and clinicians.
The agency needs 500 positions filled in Las Vegas and over 400 in Reno, and McDonald said he is making recruitment a top priority.
In his morning remarks, McDonald, on the job two weeks, said he is working to regain the trust of veterans by bringing his private sector experience to the troubled agency.
A former Procter & Gamble chief executive, McDonald said customer satisfaction was the top measurement at the company.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is a customer service organization, and the measure of success is how well the agency serves its veterans, he said.
McDonald, confirmed by the Senate three weeks ago, made his remarks to the national convention of the Blinded Veterans Association in Sparks. He was then scheduled to meet with employees of the VA’s embattled Reno regional office whose performance has been challenged by critics in Congress.
McDonald said there were a number of problems that led to the failure of the VA to properly serve veterans, from antiquated technology such as the scheduling system to leadership issues including “widespread attempts to game the system” and hide problems that made veterans wait longer for care.
There are also resource problems, and McDonald said he is addressing all three challenges as he tours VA facilities around the country.
The VA has reached out to 240,000 veterans to get them off wait lists and into clinics sooner, and in the past two months, over 838,000 referrals have been issued for veterans to receive care in the private sector, he said.
The scheduling system is being enhanced for the short term until a new system is purchased and installed, McDonald said.
McDonald said he has made it a point on his visits to talk with those employees who raised concerns about the care being provided to veterans.
“Employees who pointed out wrongdoing were often punished instead of thanked,” he said. “And the managers who retaliated against them were not held accountable.”
Leadership changes have been made as a result, McDonald said.
The visit to Northern Nevada is part of a swing McDonald is taking to introduce himself to veterans service organizations and to take measure of the VA in the field.
McDonald was also scheduled to meet separately later Tuesday with U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Gov. Brian Sandoval.
McDonald served as an airborne ranger and is a 1975 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
Contact Capital Bureau reporter Sean Whaley at email@example.com or 775-687-3900. Find him on Twitter: @seanw801.