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Director of Salt Lake's VA calls Phoenix scandal a 'crisis,' opportunity to improve

Published: Monday, June 2 2014 9:45 p.m. MDT

Steven W. Young, acting director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System, is interviewed in Salt Lake City, Monday, June 2, 2014.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Following an initial visit to the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Medical Center, interim director Steve Young says he sees both a crisis and an opportunity for the embattled hospital.

"There is not only an access crisis, but I believe there is a crisis of trust," said Young, director for the Salt Lake City VA hospital. "Our job is to help veterans understand that the VA provides phenomenal health care, to restore that trust."

Young was dispatched to Phoenix last month after director Sharon Helman was placed on leave indefinitely while the Office of Inspector General investigates claims raised by several former VA employees that Phoenix administrators kept a secret list of patients waiting for appointments to hide delays in care, the Associated Press reports.

A report from the U.S. Inspector General's office released Wednesday indicated 1,700 patients were kept on unofficial waiting lists at the Phoenix VA hospital.

"The way that the scheduling package works, it would be very easy to misrepresent those numbers," Young said Monday during a brief visit to Utah. "I'm confident we're not doing that here (in Salt Lake City)."

The challenges in Phoenix are complicated by complex policy and outdated scheduling software, Young said.

"The software wasn't designed for the purpose it's being used for now," he said. "It was right for the way it was designed, but we've moved on a little bit and it's not necessarily right for today.

Throughout his career, Young has worked at 13 VA medical centers across the country, occasionally as a "fixer" for centers that need help. His first job was as a dishwasher when he was 16. The VA, he says, has a "rich history of service to veterans."

Young said he takes the VA's struggle across the nation personally.

"My job right now is to help lead Phoenix through this very challenging time," he said. "We are marshaling national resources to be able to help Phoenix."

Because available hospital space has been tapped, Young said he and his team are bringing in mobile clinics and staff as they reach out to the veterans who haven't received care and those still on waiting lists, according to the inspector general's report.

Young said he is communicating regularly with national VA headquarters, which is in contact with the Obama administration.

"My job is to work within the VA's organizational structure, to focus on Phoenix and to help Phoenix get systems in place so that we are properly using scheduling processes and getting veterans in as quickly as possible," he said.

Email: mromero@deseretnews.com, lprichard@ksl.com

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