Veterans Affairs Department Secretary Robert McDonald on Friday announced that an independent organization will review patient scheduling processes for all VA medical facilities in the country.
McDonald announced the audit during a visit to the VA Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona -- ground zero for the wait-times scandal that has rocked the agency, leading to the resignation of former Secretary Eric Shinseki and possible criminal charges against officials who deliberately manipulated appointment data.
Investigators determined that 35 veterans whose names were on a secret list of patients waiting for an appointment at the Phoenix facility died before seeing a doctor.
"VA is committed to instilling integrity into our scheduling practices to deliver the timely care that veterans deserve," McDonald said in a statement. "It is important that our scheduling practices be reviewed by a respected, independent source to help restore trust in our system."
The review is to be conducted by the Joint Commission, an independent, not-for-profit organization that accredits and certifies health care operations in the U.S.
McDonald was making his first visit to a VA health care facility since being confirmed as secretary last month by the Senate. In Phoenix, he met with veterans and employees of the regional health care system. He has also ordered VA hospitals nationwide to hold town hall-style meetings so officials can learn from employees about any problems.
A $16.3 billion VA reform bill signed into law by President Obama on Thursday includes provisions making it easier for the VA secretary to fire managers, including senior executives, who cannot perform or who abuse their authority.
Since whistleblowers first spoke to CNN about the secret wait list and patient deaths many of the allegations were confirmed by VA investigators. The agency has pushed since then to get these previously hidden veterans into care.
In Phoenix, VA auditors found 6,712 instances of veterans waiting longer than 30 days for an appointment, though the agency standard is 14 days.
Since May, when the story broke, the Phoenix VA health care system has scheduled more than 3,000 appointments for veterans and, in addition, referred more than 6,500 veterans out to community health care partners in an effort to bring down the wait times and get vets into care more quickly, the agency said on Friday.
The Phoenix facility has also increased capacity by expanding its hours of operation, so that more appointments can be made, made additional space available by bringing in mobile medical units, and hiring additional medical staff.
During his visit to Phoenix, McDonald outlined a number of other actions the agency will be taking to improve and speed up veterans' access to health care, including conducting a review designed to ensure a strong ethical environment across the system. All medical center directors will be required to notify the under secretary for health when access or quality-of-care standards aren't being met.
Also, all senior leaders with the Veterans Health System will have their performance plans reviewed to ensure the plans better line up with the VA's strategic plan and improved satisfaction results for veterans.
Similarly, agency employee performance goals will be reviewed to make sure these focused on providing timely and quality care.
Medical center directors will also be required to make sure that all VA staff with scheduling privileges complete the mandatory scheduler training, in accordance with a VA directive. Schedulers at the Phoenix facility all undergo the training, McDonald's statement said.
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.