VA chief in Pittsburgh points to agency progress, says more needs to be done |
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Secretary Bob McDonald speaks Tuesday, July 21, 2015, at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System in Oakland as Barbara Forsha, interim director of the health care system, looks on.

The chief of the Department of Veterans Affairs said Tuesday during a Pittsburgh visit that transparency and an infusion of new leadership are key to regaining public confidence in the scandal-ridden agency.

“We know that, across the nation, trust has been compromised,” Robert McDonald told reporters during a briefing in the VA Pittsburgh Health Care System research center in Oakland. “We’re working hard to earn it back, one veteran at a time, one veteran’s family at a time.”

McDonald, an Army veteran and former CEO of Procter & Gamble Co., became VA secretary a year ago when President Obama appointed him to replace Eric Shinseki.

At the time, the agency was mired in controversy. Congressional investigators found VA employees concealed months-long wait times for veterans seeking care, several of whom died while waiting.

In Pittsburgh, whistle-blowers said employees made up fake schedules and manipulated computer programs to hide delays. A Legionnaires’ disease outbreak three years ago at facilities in Oakland and O’Hara killed at least six veterans and sickened 16 others. VA officials fired the Pittsburgh system’s director, Terry Gerigk Wolf, as a result of the outbreak.

“On behalf of the VA, I am deeply sorry for what happened,” McDonald said of the outbreak. “This was a tragedy, and we’ve got to fix it.”

He pointed to the recent federal indictment of a Georgia VA medical center worker in connection with the waiting list scandal as progress and said more than 100 people remain under investigation on similar accusations of manipulating data.

Within the past year, 91 percent of VA medical centers have installed new directors and leadership teams, he said.

“We are holding people accountable, and we are making changes,” McDonald said.

Earlier in the day, McDonald delivered a similar message — before Obama’s arrival — to a crowd during the VFW’s 116th National Convention, Downtown.

“We’re listening to veterans more, we’re listening to employees more, and we’re having more town-hall meetings,” he said, adding that the agency increased appointments by 7 million in the past year and that 97 percent of them occurred within 30 days of the veteran’s preferred appointment date.

Ken Marshall of Sun Lakes, Ariz., a VA patient who said he was exposed to Agent Orange while serving in Vietnam, listened to McDonald and came away impressed.

“This new secretary has done a great job of addressing the shortcomings they had,” Marshall said. “I was encouraged by what I heard.”

Allston J. Gilmond, 56, of Georgia, Vt., a sailor who served in Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm and is a past VFW state commander, agreed.

“McDonald has done a lot in a year, but it still has a long way to go,” he said. “I think in three or four years, you’ll really notice a big difference.”

Although the number of veterans is decreasing, the number seeking care and benefits is growing. Forty percent of vets will be 65 or older by 2017, McDonald said. And VA facilities are aging rapidly.

Without increased funding, McDonald said, “We could be facing another access crisis.”

Ben Schmitt and Tom Fontaine are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Reach Schmitt [email protected] and Fontaine at [email protected].

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