The president and Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald sat down with veterans, VA employees, representatives from veterans’ groups and elected officials to learn more about what went wrong in Phoenix and what more needs to be done to overhaul the troubled VA medical center there. The Friday stop in Arizona was aimed at highlighting the steps that have been taken to address what a White House review last year described as a “corrosive culture” at the agency and a lack of transparency and accountability.
Mr. Obama said new VA leadership has been “chipping away at those problems,” improving wait times and access to providers. But there is more work to do, he said.
“We all know that there have been significant problems at this facility, that the kind of cooking the books and the unwillingness to face up to the fact…went on too long,” the president said.
The visit was Mr. Obama’s first to the veterans’ medical center in Phoenix since allegations began to surface last April of wrongdoing among schedulers there. The VA has endured months of turmoil after revelations of widespread mismanagement and secret wait lists led to the resignation of a number of top officials, including then-Secretary Eric Shinseki.
VA employees across the country were falsifying records to make it look as if veterans were being seen for medical care within defined time frames. In reality, veterans often were waiting weeks or months longer than official records reflected. Officials in the VA’s Office of the Inspector General, its internal watchdog, testified in Congress that the long wait times contributed to patient deaths.
Administration officials recently have trumpeted an array of metrics showing that access to care has accelerated, both in Phoenix and across the VA system. Still, officials have acknowledged that the depths of the problems in the agency were daunting and that much more work remains.
A senior administration official said significant progress has been made, but the problems at the VA never were going to be fixed in a year. Mr. Obama has made upgrading the VA health-care system a priority, and he remains committed to that goal, officials said. He has also pushed for a focus on ending veteran homelessness and has implemented changes aimed at smoothing troops’ transition from activity duty to veteran life.
Mr. McDonald, a former Procter & Gamble Co. chief executive, has been making changes since taking over as VA secretary in July, including launching efforts to bring to the department a private-sector mentality of prioritizing customer service and implementing quality-control measures.
Mr. McDonald has had the support of most veterans groups, lawmakers and the administration since taking the helm, buoyed by the widely held idea that fixing the problems at the VA will take time.
“He sees things firsthand for himself, and it’s even more encouraging that the president’s joining him on this trip,” said Garry Augustine, executive director of Disabled American Veterans, an advocacy group. “I think it’s appropriate that they both pay a visit to the hospital.”
Despite Mr. McDonald’s outreach efforts, the VA still suffers from problems that he has said might take months or years to fix, even with a recent injection of some $16 billion in emergency funding approved by Congress in 2014 in part to help reduce a substantial backlog of patients waiting for appointments.
This week’s announcement that Messrs. Obama and McDonald would visit the Phoenix VA hospital brought renewed calls from Republican lawmakers urging the administration to make better use of the funds allocated and speed up the firing of negligent and underperforming executives.
“The vast majority of this money remains unspent, and the expanded accountability authority has rarely been used,” Rep. Jeff Miller (R., Fla.), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said in a statement. “It’s time for the administration to step up and use the tools Congress gave it to reform the department into an organization truly worthy of the veterans it is charged with serving.”
The emergency funding measure also has been criticized recently by some veterans’ groups. A survey of veterans conducted by the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization suggested that large numbers of veterans don’t understand how to take advantage of the program to get appointments with doctors outside of the VA system or said they weren’t give then option.
Mr. Obama said Friday he is committed to implementing the legislation promptly, adding that he would work to ensure veterans are aware of the private-sector care options available to them.
(article from Wall Street Journal)