In his first public comments as acting secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Sloan Gibson said the agency 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, while promising to bring cultural change to the massive department and restore trust in its health network “one veteran at a time.”
Also on Monday, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee is set to hold a hearing to gather testimony from watchdog agencies about the scheduling scandal.
Officials from VA’s inspector general’s office and the Government Accountability Office, Congress’s nonpartisan investigative wing, are slated to appear as witnesses. VA is also expected to send an official.
“I will not be part of some effort to maintain the status quo here,” Gibson said at a news conference Thursday in Phoenix, where he visited a VA hospital at the center of the department’s recordkeeping scandal, which cost his boss, Eric K. Shinseki, his job last month. “We’re going to change this organization.”
An interim report from the department’s inspector general’s office determined that the Phoenix clinic kept about 1,700 patients on an unofficial wait list of veterans experiencing treatment delays, and Gibson said Thursday that 18 patients on the alternative list died while waiting for care. He indicated, however, that the inspector general has not determined whether treatment delays contributed to their deaths.
The report also noted that the scheduling issues were systemic.
Gibson’s remarks come as the White House works to identify potential nominees to replace Shinseki, who resigned after the inspector general report hastened calls for him to step down.
One candidate withdrew his name from consideration over the weekend. Delos “Toby” Cosgrove, chief executive of the Cleveland Clinic, said in a statement Saturday that he was “honored” to have been asked about the post but has decided to stay at the medical center.
A heart surgeon who served in the Air Force in Da Nang, Vietnam, Cosgrove was awarded the Bronze Star and the Republic of Vietnam Commendation Medal. He has run the Cleveland Clinic since 2004, and the facility has consistently ranked as one of the country’s top medical centers when it comes to responsiveness to patients.
The clinic, according to a report in Modern Healthcare, has had challenges in recent years with issues such as Medicare and operating-room facilities. A spokesman said over the weekend that the issues were quickly addressed.
The White House declined to comment on Cosgrove’s announcement.
The Senate confirmed Gibson as VA’s No. 2 in February. He previously led the United Service Organizations, which supports troops and their families.
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.
President 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 Thursday and outlined steps 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 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 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 VA deems it necessary, and he signaled support for recent congressional proposals that would give the secretary greater authority to fire senior executives over performance problems. “If I had additional [firing] authority, I would use it,” he said.