September 8, 2014
BEN KESLING | The Wall Street Journal
WASHINGTON—The new head of the Department of Veterans Affairs said Monday he is working to streamline the VA's sprawling bureaucracy, simplify the process for veterans to receive care and hire thousands of new doctors and nurses.
Robert McDonald , who was confirmed by the Senate in July as VA secretary, said he wants to foster a culture where whistleblowers feel safe to speak out and employees who contributed to delays in care are disciplined.
"My question always is, 'How is the VA treating you and how can we improve?,' " he said at a news conference as he discussed what he has learned from veterans at town-hall-style meetings across the country.
Since assuming office, the former chief executive of Procter & Gamble Co. has set top goals of transparency and access, insisting that people call him by his first name and publicly giving out his cellphone number. But he provided few specifics when pressed to give detailed explanations about disciplinary actions against employees implicated in recent scandals and the particulars of his overhaul plans.
The department first came under fire in mid-April when a former doctor at the Phoenix VA Health Care System alleged employees had doctored official wait lists, making it seem like patients weren't waiting long for appointments.
Since then, investigations and reviews by groups including the VA and its inspector general found systemic problems at the department. The findings contributed to the resignation of then-Secretary Eric Shinseki and a number of his top lieutenants.
The inspector general issued its final report on the Phoenix system in late August, outlining problems at the operation but saying no deaths could be conclusively linked to delays in care. Mr. McDonald said Monday that more than 100 VA facilities are currently under investigation.
The department has eliminated performance standards that, according to Mr. McDonald, "became an end in themselves." It also suspended many employee performance bonuses and has been working to expedite appointments for veterans on waiting lists.
"We are way too complicated from the veteran's standpoint," he said, noting that the VA has 14 different websites veterans might have to use for care, each of which requires a separate username and password. He didn't say how the department would fix that particular problem, though.
President Barack Obama signed a more than $16 billion VA funding bill in August, most of which is being used to allow veterans on long wait lists to visit non-VA doctors. It also provides for the hiring of more VA doctors and nurses and the leasing of more than two dozen facilities across the country.
As of Monday, the VA has reached out to some 294,000 veterans who had been waiting for care and made nearly one million referrals for care outside of the VA system, Mr. McDonald said.
Veterans groups said they weren't bothered by the lack of specifics in Mr. McDonald's speech. "In his first few weeks, Secretary McDonald has continued to show veterans he has our back" by traveling to hospitals and talking with veterans, said Paul Rieckhoff, CEO of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "Supporting our community is not about single actions or speeches with empty promises."
The Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs is scheduled to hold a hearing Tuesday on the inspector general's findings on Phoenix. Its House counterpart plans similar hearings on Sept. 18. Mr. McDonald likely will testify at both sessions.