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VA secretary McDonald predicts sea of change at agency | TribLIVE.com
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VA secretary McDonald predicts sea of change at agency

Tribune-Review
| Tuesday, November 17, 2015 10:45 p.m
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James Knox | Trib Total Media
Robert McDonald, secretary of Veterans Affairs (left), chats with vets Jackie Shirriel (right) and Ronald Scott after taking part in a roundtable discussion at veterans court on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015.
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James Knox | Trib Total Media
Veterans Court Participant Marcel Farrish takes part in a roundtable discussion with Robert McDonald, secretary of the U.S Veterans Affairs, at veterans court on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015, in the Federal Courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh.
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James Knox | Trib Total Media
Veterans Court participant Marcel Farrish takes part in a roundtable discussion with Robert McDonald, secretary of Veterans Affairs, at veterans court on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015, in the Federal Courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald on Tuesday toured Pittsburgh, touting improvements in patient care, a slew of fresh hires and new leadership training he anticipates will effect a “huge culture change” within an agency plagued by scandal in recent years.

In his 15th month helming the 340,000-employee department, McDonald rebuffed criticisms that the VA is not doing enough to resolve issues such as wait-list manipulation and hefty patient backlogs, and that it’s not moving quickly enough to discipline supervisors who retaliate against whistleblowers.

“The best customer-focused companies in the world are those where the employees are making the changes and not waiting for management to make the changes,” said McDonald, whose wife grew up in Western Pennsylvania.

“And where we find that we have leaders who are not creating that kind of culture, we take action and we move them and we discipline them.”

McDonald’s visit included a veterans court roundtable at the federal courthouse, a public talk at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine and private meetings with veterans and foundation and industry leaders at The Heinz Endowments.

“We’re hiring more doctors, more nurses, creating more space — all the things you would do to create access,” McDonald told the veterans group court.

From August 2014 to August 2015, the Veterans Health Administration increased its staff by more than 14,000 — 1,400 doctors, 3,800 nurses, 116 psychiatrists and 422 psychologists, according to McDonald’s office.

Disability claims are getting processed faster, with the number of claims more than 125 days old dropping from 611,000 to 70,000, according to McDonald.

The number of VA appointments not scheduled within 30 days, however, is on the rise, from 300,000 to nearly 500,000. McDonald said the rapidly aging veteran population explains the growing demand.

On Wednesday, McDonald plans to meet with at least one family who lost a loved one during the agency’s Legionnaires’ outbreak, VA spokesman Mike Marcus said.

At least six veterans died and 16 were sickened during a Legionnaires’ outbreak that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said lasted from February 2011 to November 2012. VA leaders fired the former VA Pittsburgh director, Terry Gerigk Wolf, for her handling of the outbreak and overhauled their policy for dealing with the bacteria at hospitals across the country.

McDonald’s confidence in the VA’s outlook has not quelled the agency’s staunchest critics.

“As the boss, I think he could do a lot more a lot quicker,” American Legion Department of Pennsylvania Cmdr. Mike Stelacio said.

He pointed to a USA Today report last week that found the VA paid more than $142 million in performance bonuses to 156,000 executives and employees in 2014.

“Why should they receive a bonus when we have vets that can’t get appointments?” Stelacio asked.

House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, slammed the VA for what he called a “pervasive lack of accountability for corrupt and incompetent employees.”

“In order to field a winning team, VA has to be prepared to cut its worst players. But time and again VA leaders and President Obama seem unwilling to do that,” Miller said Tuesday by email. “As a result, the department — forced to tolerate corruption, malfeasance and incompetence within its ranks — remains under the shadow of perpetual scandal.”

McDonald said he recently invited the VA’s top 300 leaders to a special three-day training session. He’s eager to see results of using the Lean Six Sigma training model, a business management practice focused on maximizing efficiency and lowering costs.

“I’m expecting to see a huge culture change from that,” said McDonald, a former corporate executive and a veteran who was a captain in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division.

Ninety percent of VA medical centers have new directors or leadership teams, McDonald said. Just last week, the federal agency hired a new director of the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System. McDonald said 10 of his 17 direct reports weren’t there when he assumed his post.

“We take every leader we put into place very seriously,” McDonald said. “I want to know every single leader before we put them into place because I want to know that I can trust them.”

Staff writer Mike Wereschagin contributed to this report. Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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