President Obama’s visit to the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital that was the epicenter of last summer’s nationwide scandal highlighted the work that VA must still do to weed out incompetent executives and win back the confidence of veterans.
Senior executives at the Phoenix facility and at VA hospitals throughout the country were found to have falsified records to hide long wait times facing veterans seeking medical care.
The problems were the product of what administration officials described last summer as a “corrosive culture” and an overwhelmed system that lacked the necessary doctors, nurses and facilities.
“Trust is one of those things that you lose real quick, and then it takes some time to build,” Obama said after meeting with representatives of veterans groups and lawmakers.
The president pointed to signs of progress over the past nine months: More doctors have been hired, and waiting times have been cut at some VA facilities. But the focus of Obama’s visit to Phoenix was the problems that remain.
The president talked about the need to continue improving mental health care and suicide prevention programs for veterans, as well as changing a culture in which veterans’ needs were too often ignored.
“That culture of mistreatment is something that all veterans, including post-9/11 veterans, have felt,” said Cara Hammer Campbell, a former soldier who represented Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) at the meeting. “We talked a lot about having a plan to change that culture.”
Much of that work will fall to Robert McDonald, a former Procter & Gamble chief executive, who became VA secretary last summer to turn around the agency.
To help him, Obama announced the creation of an advisory committee made up of corporate executives, veterans, medical professionals and academics who will recommend reforms to help modernize VA and improve customer service.
McDonald was in Phoenix on Thursday, ahead of the president, meeting with several whistleblowers, some of whom said that they were still being punished for pointing out problems at the hospital.
Brandon Coleman filed a formal complaint in December alleging that suicidal veterans were improperly being discharged from the Phoenix hospital without follow-up.
In January, Coleman was put on paid administrative leave by supervisors who said that he had threatened another employee.
“It’s just me fighting this system alone,” he said this week. “The Phoenix VA is trying to bury me.”
A few hours later, McDonald contacted Coleman’s attorney and said he wanted to meet, so Coleman and the VA secretary talked for about 30 minutes.
“He just gave me a voice and listened,” Coleman said after his meeting with the secretary. “I told him I don’t belong sitting at home. I belong with my veterans.”
McDonald’s outreach is indicative of a broader commitment on the part of senior VA leaders to seek out problems, veterans groups said.
“They’re out there, and they’re listening,” said Paul Rieckhoff, who heads IAVA and last year was among the most vocal critics of VA. “McDonald is having a legitimate conversation with veterans and veterans groups.”
The secretary has removed some of the officials implicated in the recent scandal, although Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) recently complained that “not a single VA senior executive has been fired for wait-time manipulation.”
“The lack of accountability for those who caused the VA scandal is the single most important factor inhibiting the VA’s transformation, and nowhere is this more visible in Phoenix,” said Miller, the chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
The head of the Phoenix VA Health Care System was fired recently for accepting inappropriate gifts, such as tickets to a Beyoncé concert, but the department could not prove that the hospital chief knew of efforts to falsify wait times.
McDonald and his team “have picked off the low-hanging fruit,” said Phil Carter, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Now they will have to address some of the bigger and more intractable problems at VA, the federal government’s second-largest department.
Because the department lacks an effective software system for tracking patient demand, VA officials cannot say how many new doctors and new facilities are needed around the country, Carter said. Fixing the problem will require short-circuiting the federal government’s slow and cumbersome contracting process.
“It’s time for someone to say, ‘This isn’t cutting it, and we need something better on the front lines right now,’ ” Carter said.
The department’s damaged reputation also remains a big impediment to attracting talented staff. And only about half of eligible Iraq and Afghanistan veterans use VA facilities, Rieckhoff said. Some abandoned the system because of poor care or because they were unable to get timely appointments. Others lack confidence in the system.
“McDonald really needs talent,” Rieckhoff said. “He needs more authority to fire people and more money to improve the system.”
Rieckhoff said that he would like to see Obama press more publicly for improvements to VA. Last month, Obama held a signing ceremony at the White House for a bill that provides VA with new funds to research suicide prevention strategies and student loan incentives to recruit psychiatrists to work with veterans.
“The president has not been visibly engaged on these issues,” Rieckhoff said. “McDonald can’t fix the VA alone. He needs the president’s bully pulpit. He needs the president to explain the scope of the health problems we veterans face.”