Acting VA secretary promises to ‘make dust’ and change agency culture

 

Sloan Gibson on Thursday issued his first public remarks about the Department of Veterans Affairs’ scheduling scandal since becoming the agency’s acting head, promising to answer President Obama’s call for cultural change and restore trust in the VA health network “one veteran at a time.”

“I will not be part of some effort to maintain the status quo here,” Sloan said at a news conference in Phoenix, where he visited a VA hospital at the center of the department’s record-keeping scandal. “We’re going to change this organization.”

Gibson added that he will approach his job as if the word “acting” does not appear in his title. “Whether I’m here for a week or a month or two years, every minute I’m here, we’re going to make dust,” he said.


Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson participates in a White House event to end veterans homelessness on June 4. (Reuters/Gary Cameron).

The interim chief’s remarks come as the White House works to identify potential nominees to replace former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who resigned last week after the department’s inspector general confirmed allegations of widespread falsification of scheduling records to hide treatment delays at VA clinics.

Investigators determined that the Phoenix clinic kept about 1,700 patients on an unofficial wait list for veterans experiencing treatment delays, putting them “at risk of being forgotten or lost in Phoenix HCS’s convoluted scheduling process,” according to an interim report from the inspector general’s office.

Gibson said Thursday that 18 patients on the alternative list died while waiting for care, although he indicated that the inspector general has not yet determined whether treatment delays contributed to their deaths.


(Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The report said VA health centers nationwide appear to be using similar tactics to manipulate their scheduling records, improving performance marks that help determine whether employees and managers deserve extra pay.

Gibson said the department on Monday plans to release the results of its internal audit of scheduling practices at VA hospitals nationwide. “The data will demonstrate the extent of the systemic problems we have discovered,” he said.

The VA knew that its clinics were using inappropriate scheduling practices at least as early as the mid-2000s from numerous watchdog reviews. It issued a memo in 2010 telling all VA hospitals that the schemes would “not be tolerated,” but the problem persisted.

Obama said in remarks after Shinseki’s resignation that the Veterans Health Administration needs a new culture in which “bad news gets surfaced quickly so things can be fixed.”

Gibson echoed those sentiments on Thursday and outlined steps the VA has taken to correct its scheduling practices and resolve treatment delays in Phoenix. He said the agency:

* Contacted all veterans on the unofficial wait list to help them schedule appointments

* Began work to contract with private clinics that can help the VA deliver timely care

* Deployed mobile medical units to see more patients.

* Started the administrative process required for removing three senior officials at the Phoenix center

Gibson also promised to improve relations with Congress, where lawmakers from both parties have suggested recently that the VA has not adequately responded to information requests and committee subpoenas. 

“I want a reset,” the acting secretary said. “I’ve got to earn that.”

Gibson said he will not hesitate to ask for additional funding if the VA determines it needs more money to keep up with demand at its hospitals.

“Where I need resources, I’m going to raise my hand, and I have a whole bunch of members of Congress ready to hear my request, if I have a request,” he said.

Gibson additionally signaled support for recent congressional proposals that would give the VA secretary greater authority to fire senior executives over performance problems. He said: “If I had additional [firing] authority, I would use it.”

Follow Josh Hicks on TwitterFacebook or Google+. Connect by e-mail at  josh.hicks(at)washpost.comVisit The Federal Eye and The Fed Page for more federal news. Submit news tips and suggestions to federalworker@washpost.com.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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