WASHINGTON (AP) — The Veterans Affairs Department with its 14 different password-protected websites is too complicated for most veterans to navigate, new Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald said Monday as he promised to make it easier for veterans to get disability benefits, health care, job training and other services.
The VA must "put veterans at the center of everything we do," he said.
McDonald took over the agency in late July after former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned amid a political furor over veterans in need of medical care having to wait months for appointments at VA hospital and clinics. Investigators said efforts to cover up or hide the delays were systemic throughout the agency's network of nearly 1,000 hospitals and clinics.
At a news conference at VA headquarters, McDonald unveiled what he called a three-point plan to rebuild trust among veterans, improve service delivery and set a course for the agency's long-term future. The plan should be implemented by Veterans Day, Nov. 11, he said.
The former Procter & Gamble CEO also said he wants to make the VA less formal, starting with his own title. "Call me Bob," not Mr. Secretary, he said.
He gave his cellphone number to a roomful of reporters as a sign of his intent to open up what he called the VA's closed culture, which he said has made it difficult to root out problems at the agency's far-flung local and regional offices.
McDonald is scheduled to testify Tuesday before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee about a report by the department's inspector general on delays in patient care at the VA's Phoenix medical center, where a whistleblower first exposed long delays in patient care.
The report said workers falsified waitlists while their supervisors looked the other way or even directed it, resulting in chronic delays for veterans seeking care. The inspector general's office identified 40 patients who died while awaiting appointments in Phoenix, but the report said officials could not "conclusively assert that the absence of timely quality care caused the deaths of these veterans."
Three high-ranking officials at the Phoenix facility have been placed on leave while they appeal a department decision to fire them.
McDonald called the report troubling and said VA officials "feel terrible" about the problems the report revealed.
"We have worked on remedies for everything that they pointed out," he said, noting that three of 25 recommendations by the inspector general have already been implemented.
"We are very sorry for what happened in Phoenix and we are working very hard to learn from it and pass those learnings around the entire system so that this does not happen again," he said.
Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said he was impressed by McDonald's commitment to veterans.
"In his first few weeks, Secretary McDonald has continued to show veterans he has our back," Rieckhoff said, noting that McDonald has repeatedly called for changes in how the VA operates at visits to VA hospitals and appearances before veterans service organizations.
"This hands-on leadership and strategic plan is exactly what the VA needs after a summer of scandal and broken trust," Rieckhoff said. "But there is still a very, very long road ahead before IAVA members see a real turnaround on the ground in their hometowns. The VA's trust has been badly broken."
McDonald himself acknowledged the difficulty of his task as he discussed efforts to recruit "tens of thousands" of doctors, nurses and other health care professionals to help alleviate a patient backlog at VA hospitals and clinics across the country.
McDonald called the VA a "great place to work" with "the best patients in the world" and significant resources to treat patients and conduct cutting-edge research.
Still he acknowledged that pay for VA health professionals lags behind the private sector, and said a three-year salary freeze has hurt recruitment and retention of doctors and nurses. The VA is evaluating whether to raise salaries and by how much, but no decisions have been made, McDonald said.
"It does us no good to recruit people if we can't retain them, and certainly compensation is a part of that, he said.
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