VA Announces Major Restructuring Ahead of Veterans Day

VA Secretary Robert McDonald speaks at a news conference at the Veterans Affairs Department in Washington, Monday, Sept. 8, 2014. McDonald discussed his visits at VA facilities across the country and outlined his priorities.Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
VA Secretary Robert McDonald speaks at a news conference at the Veterans Affairs Department in Washington, Monday, Sept. 8, 2014. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

The Veterans Affairs Department has started what's it is describing as a major restructuring that is focused on better serving veterans and holding poorly performing managers accountable, VA Secretary Bob McDonald announced.

The VA Secretary said Sunday on CBS's "60 Minutes" that he has passed to Congress 35 names of VA employees the agency plans to fire who are connected to the scandal that saw VA managers manipulate waiting times for veterans to be seen by doctors. Another VA report has a list of 1,000 names of VA employees who face additional disciplinary action as a result of the scandal.

On Monday, the VA announced changes made to the agency's internal structure including the hiring of a customer service chief in an effort to cut out bureaucracy and more quickly respond to veteran's needs.

In an afternoon statement following up on release of a three-month department progress report, McDonald said VA will establish an agency-wide customer service organization whose boss will report directly to him.

"The mission of the new office will be to drive VA culture and practices to understand and respond to the expectations of our veteran customers," McDonald said.

McDonald, who came to head up the VA after a career with consumer giant Procter & Gamble, said the department has already set up Idea House, a website to collect the ideas from veterans, their families and others, on how to improve services.

"We don't have all the answers right now, and that's why we are reaching to you for your thoughts," he said. "This will be a fair and deliberate process, and we need your help to make sure our decisions are the right ones for veterans."

McDonald said the VA plans to simplify its internal coordination and enhance customer service so that veterans can more easily navigate the huge department.

Other initiatives include establishing a national network of Community Veteran Advisory Councils to coordinate VA services to veterans with local, state and community partners, and coordinate and streamline VA's own internal business processes to improve and speed up delivery of services.

McDonald's Monday announcement came shortly after he released "Road to Veterans Day" report, his three-month report on the progress VA has made since revelations that VA hospitals across the country had doctored patient wait times for appointments.

In the case of the VA Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona, the VA Inspector General's office says delays in care contributed to the deaths of some veterans.

The report highlighted how more than 1.2 million more appointments have been scheduled in the last four months than in the same period a year ago. It also mentioned that national primary care wait times have gone down by 18 percent and about 1.1 million more vets were referred to care outside VA than a year ago.

The law firm of Bergmann & Moore, which specializes in veterans claims, dismissed the report as old news in a statement on its Facebook page.

"[The report] lacks news, as well as ownership of a massive problem, but in honor of Veterans Day it does contain a brag list of all VA has done in the past three months," the firm posted.

The report is the culmination of three months of visits to some 41 VA facilities across the country and meetings with VA patients, employees, senior executives, union officials, veterans' service group representatives and lawmakers.

"These opportunities have informed my thinking as we work to plan for the future of the department," McDonald said in a statement released Monday afternoon.

In addition to the McDonald's report, the VA's Office of the inspector General released its own strategic plan, outlining its priorities for the period 2016-2020. The IG plan identifies six high-risk areas facing the VA including: health care delivery, benefits processing, financial management, procurement practices, information management and workforce investment.

Acting IG Richard Griffin said his department will focus on VA initiatives, goals and the high-risk areas through program audits and evaluations and investigations.

But Griffin and his office have themselves come under fire from lawmakers over allegations that the former Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson successfully pressed the IG to water down initial findings about the Phoenix facility. The IG originally was set to attribute up to 35 deaths to the delays in care.

The final report said investigators could not directly attribute any deaths to manipulating patient wait times, though under heated questioning by Congress the IG's office said the delays to care would have contributed to the deaths.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@monster.com

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