The head of the Veterans Affairs Department on Monday said more than 100 investigations are being carried out at VA facilities across the country as a result of the scandal involving secret wait lists, manipulated patient data and the deaths of veterans seeking VA health care.
VA Secretary Bob McDonald, meeting with reporters at VA headquarters in Washington on Monday, said the investigations are being conducted by VA's Inspector General, its Office of Special Council, the FBI and the Department of Justice.
"I want to make clear that when evidence of wrongdoing is discovered we will hold employees accountable," McDonald said. "We will take action as quickly as the law and due process allows us to take."
McDonald's Monday press conference came at the end of a series of meetings at VA medical centers that began shortly after he was confirmed by the Senate in late July to succeed former Secretary Eric Shinseki.
Shinseki, already struggling with Congress and other VA critics over a disability claims backlog and instances of preventable deaths at VA facilities, resigned following revelations that VA medical centers across the country were manipulating patient wait times to hide the fact they could not meet VA standards for care.
At the VA Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona, 35 patients were confirmed to have died while waiting for an appointment, though a VA investigation so far has said there is no evidence that their failure to get an appointment caused their deaths.
McDonald said Monday that the VA has proposed disciplinary action against three senior executives with the Phoenix hospital and the process is continuing. Though Congress recently provided him greater authority to terminate executives, he said the system still has to be followed.
In addition to those proposed actions, McDonald said two senior executives have been forced to resign or retire, three are on administrative leave pending a final resolution, and more than two dozen medical professionals are "no longer working for the VA."
The administration has said previously that VA officials found culpable in the deaths of any veterans could face criminal prosecution.
Also on Monday, McDonald outlined the plan for his first 90-days as VA secretary, much of which he has talked about during his tour of medical facilities and in meetings with veterans and veterans' organizations.
"We call it the Road to Veterans Day," he said, though he notes that Veterans Day, on Nov. 11, will come more than 90 days after his July 29 confirmation. But the goal is to put together quick action steps to improve service and care to veterans, their families or survivors, he said.
The first step is to rebuild trust among veterans, their advocacy groups and Congress. Next is improving delivery of services by focusing on outcomes, access and care, he said.
The third part of the plan is to set a course "for long-term excellence, looking at the department from the lens of the veterans and deciding what we need to do to reorganizes to deliver better access [and] better care for the long term."
McDonald wants a department that is less hierarchal and designed with ease-of-access for veterans in mind, and where all employees are invited to be whistleblowers for the benefit of veterans.
"VA is all about veterans. It is the only reason we exist," VA Secretary Bob McDonald told a press conference at VA headquarters in Washington.
McDonald illustrated his vision of VA by flipping over a talking points card and drawing on it an inverted pyramid. Most employees and veterans he met during his recent cross-country tour of VA facilities invariably called him "sir" and viewed the VA as a traditional pyramid-style management scheme, with the VA secretary on top followed by executives, managers, clinical professionals, support staff and, finally, the veterans.
McDonald said it has to be the other way around, writing "veterans" across the top of his pyramid and his own job at the bottom. He also said he insists that people call him "Bob," not Secretary McDonald.
"I need to create a much more open culture where every employee feels comfortable telling the secretary what is wrong in the organization and how we can improve," he said.
Transparency is important, he said, noting that his VA town hall meetings have included union leaders, veterans' service organization representatives, and members of Congress as well as VA employees.
"I told employees that I want every employee to criticize what we do, help us improve, and everybody to become a whistleblower in their own way," he said.
McDonald said he even answers his own emails and later provided reporters in the room – as well as the CSPAN audience who was listening in – his cell phone number.
While McDonald praised VA officials and staff he met with during his cross-country tour to learn about the embattled department's problems, he also conceded that veterans continue to wait too long for care and the VA bureaucracy does not function as it should in many cases.
Reorganization means restructuring VA in a way that makes sense to its veteran customers, he said.
Right now veterans who go online to begin looking for VA care or services will see different geographic maps for different VA functions and operations, as well as 14 VA websites that require separate user names and passwords.
"That's just flat wrong. We've got to make it easier for the veteran to access the VA through one website, one username, one password," McDonald Said. "You look at the structure of the VA, you have nine different geographic maps ... every part of the VA has a different geographic map, a different hierarchal structure.
"We're going to be looking at how we reorganize the VA so that when the veteran looks at the VA the veteran knows how to connect and how to get things done," he said. "We are [now] too complicated from the veterans standpoint."
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org