WASHINGTON — The Veterans Affairs Department has reached out to all veterans on official and unofficial waiting lists at the VA's troubled Phoenix medical center, where a whistleblower first exposed long delays in patient care, VA Secretary Robert McDonald says.
The Phoenix hospital has hired 53 additional full-time employees in recent months as officials move to address a patient backlog that resulted in chronic delays for veterans seeking care, McDonald said. Officials completed nearly 150,000 appointments at the hospital in May, June and July, McDonald said, a significant increase over previous years.
In all, the VA has reached out to more than 266,000 veterans nationwide to get them off waiting lists and into clinics, McDonald said in testimony prepared for a Senate hearing Tuesday. The Associated Press obtained a copy in advance.
"We at VA are committed to fixing the problems and consistently providing the high-quality care our veterans have earned and deserve in order to improve their health and well-being," McDonald said.
McDonald was set to testify Tuesday as Congress examines an investigative report on delays in patient care at the Phoenix hospital, where a scandal that resulted in the ouster of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki erupted last spring.
McDonald's testimony before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee marks his first appearance before Congress since being confirmed as VA secretary six week ago.
Workers at a Phoenix VA hospital falsified waiting lists while their supervisors looked the other way or even directed it, resulting in chronic delays for veterans seeking care, the Aug. 26 report by the VA inspector general said. 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.
Richard Griffin, the VA's acting inspector general, testified Tuesday that the report by his office provides the VA with "a major impetus to re-examine the entire process of setting performance expectations for its leaders and managers" throughout the system.
His office is investigating allegations of wrongdoing at 93 VA sites across the country, Griffin said, adding that he will continue to review allegations of irregularities with appointment scheduling, problems preventing veterans from receiving health care and other issues.
McDonald called the report troubling and said the agency has begun working on remedies recommended by the report.
"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 at a news conference Monday.
McDonald also said the VA was too complicated for most veterans to navigate and must be streamlined to make it easier for them to get disability benefits, health care, job training and other services. The agency has 14 different password-protected websites and nine geographic regions — numbers McDonald vowed to correct.
The VA must "put veterans at the center of everything we do," he said.
McDonald took over the agency July 30, two months after 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.
McDonald on Monday 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.
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