VA head outlines fix for troubled agency

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald addresses a forum titled 'Leading the Way,' about the post-war contributions of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, at the Washington Post Nov. 10, 2014 in Washington, D.C.

The new head of the Department of Veterans Affairs described the broad outlines Monday of an overhaul of the agency, which has been battered by scandals over lengthy delays setting up doctor's visits and attempts to cover up those backlogs.

Advocates for veterans, meanwhile, said they were eager to see details of the plan.


"Veterans are getting to the point where they don't want to hear all these great buzzwords," said Verna L. Jones, the executive director of the American Legion in Washington. "Veterans want results."

VA Secretary Robert McDonald, who assumed office in July, said his plans to streamline management, fire more than 1,000 employees and hire 28,000 more medical staff amount to the "largest reorganization of the Department of Veterans Affairs since its establishment."


He told CNN that he wanted veterans to think of the department "as embracing them, as giving them a warm hug, a place they can go to for the care they need."

McDonald said he would create a new office charged with ensuring good customer service and set up a network of advisory councils. But he supplied few details, and veterans organizations said they want more information.

"Making big announcements from Washington is easy," said Paul Rieckhoff, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "Delivering on them is hard. After years of failure, missed deadlines and disappointment at VA, our veterans will only celebrate when we see results.

"We're all rooting for Secretary McDonald and the VA, but IAVA members won't be satisfied until the mission is accomplished and we see a measurable difference in local communities nationwide."

McDonald described steps he is taking to make it easier for veterans to get health care and other benefits in a series of appearances leading up to Veterans Day.

He announced the plans in a letter sent to VA employees Monday.

"Our shared goals are to ensure that veterans have a clear understanding of VA and where to go for what they need within any of our facilities," McDonald wrote.

McDonald told "60 Minutes" on Sunday that he wants to fire 35 employees and that as many as 1,000 others suspected of contributing to the problems could also get the boot.


Veterans in Maryland were waiting an average of more than 80 days to see a doctor for an initial visit — the fourth-worst performance in the nation — auditors found in June. But the VA here ranked fairly well on wait times for appointments after that initial visit.

Elsewhere in the country, the VA's problems have been dire. In Phoenix, inspectors said, VA staff put veterans on unofficial waiting lists so delays in care could not be detected by senior managers. The inspectors said they uncovered similar problems at other facilities.

Last year, the VA office in Baltimore that handles disability benefits claims — which is separate from the VA Maryland Health Care System — ranked as the slowest and most error-prone in the nation. Data released last week showed the office still struggling, with a large proportion of its cases tied up in a backlog.

While it was the problems on the health care side that led to the shake-up, the American Legion's Jones said she was hopeful that McDonald's overhaul would improve all of the VA's activities: delivering health care, administering benefits and managing veterans cemeteries.

McDonald, a former CEO of Procter & Gamble, assumed command of the agency after the resignation of Gen. Eric Shinseki earlier this year. Shinseki, a former Army chief of staff, faced intense criticism following accusations that employees of the Veterans Health Administration were falsifying appointment data and failing to provide timely care to veterans.

Under McDonald, the agency has focused on disciplinary proceedings against employees implicated in the wait-list scandal. Officials said this month that at least 40 employees had been identified for disciplinary action, with more than 100 investigations continuing.


The agency also said it had cut significantly into the backlog of veterans waiting to be seen by scheduling more than 19 million appointments since June.

Critics say the VA, which manages hundreds of facilities nationwide, is unnecessarily complex and bureaucratic.

The agency employs about 330,000 people and provides health care and benefits for millions. In Maryland the agency cares for 55,000 people, who made almost 700,000 outpatient visits last year.

Walinda West, a VA spokeswoman, said the reorganization would make the agency "easier to navigate."

While McDonald has worked on the restructuring, the agency has been sending more veterans to private doctors.

The department began sending out vouchers last week to allow veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or have been waiting more than 30 days for an appointment to see a private doctor. As many as 9 million veterans ultimately could benefit from that program.


Rep. John Delaney said he was "encouraged" by McDonald's announcement.

"In the private sector, you understand what the goal is and you keep bringing in new people and making changes until you get it right," the Montgomery County Democrat said. "We need the VA to take a similarly aggressive approach."

Tribune Washington reporter Matt Hansen contributed to this article.