The president’s visit comes two months after he was criticized by Congress and veterans groups for not talking with Arizona veterans during a visit to the state, where he previewed his housing policies. Some members of Congress slammed Obama because he drove right past the hospital without stopping during that visit.
The scandal over the medical center’s delays in providing care for veterans, some of them struggling with cancer, suicidal thoughts and other issues, sparked an investigation. It led to revelations that the problem was not limited to the Phoenix facility and that similar lapses were seen at scores of VA facilities. The revelations prompted a public uproar and cost McDonald’s predecessor, Eric K. Shinseki, his job.
This time, Obama is visiting after a stop at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser and an appearance on the Jimmy Kimmel show in Los Angeles.
In a background statement, a White House official said the VA “has made progress in accelerating care to veterans and addressing instances of unacceptable wait-times nationwide.”
The Phoenix hospital is still mired in controversy, and several employees who work there said they were looking forward to the visit.
“I hope that the visit by the president along with the VA secretary will help ensure that the administration at the Phoenix VA hospital will be held to the highest standards when it comes to caring for suicidal and intoxicated veterans,” said Brandon Coleman, a therapist and decorated veteran who said he was suspended in January for urgently warning that there was a problem with how suicidal veterans were being treated. “It’s my hope that this visit will help promote a workplace free of whistleblower harassment.”
McDonald came to office in July with a mandate for reform. He announced that he wanted to make “every employee a whistleblower” and help foster a culture that “celebrates them,” after whistleblowers in Phoneix said they were harassed and silenced after they raising the wait-time issue.
Coleman and others say the hospital is still silencing them.
The VA says it is working to encourage a more open culture. It also says wait times are down. Nationally, VA completed more than 37 million appointments between May 1, 2014, and Dec. 31, 2014. That’s 1.8 million more appointments than were completed during the same period in 2013, according to an agency fact sheet.
McDonald pledged to have his tarnished agency’s reputation back on track by this past Veterans Day and announced “the largest restructuring in the department’s history,” along with a slew of reforms — including hiring more doctors and nurses and creating a new veterans-centric Internet site — on the eve of the holiday.
But he has been criticized for what many see as the slow pace of reform.