Robert McDonald, who got the top job at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) less than four months ago, is taking advantage of Veteran’s Day to convey just how serious he is about rebuilding the tarnished government agency.
McDonald, a veteran who was formerly the longtime CEO of consumer products giant Procter & Gamble, stepped in after allegations of long wait times and efforts to hide them from public scrutiny felled the former VA secretary, Eric Shinseki.
McDonald announced on Monday that he plans to streamline the sprawling agency and establish a customer service division that will make it easier for veterans to navigate services “without having to understand our inner structure.” The plan promises a single website with a single user ID that will allow vets to connect to all of the agency’s services.
The plans were welcomed by some of the same groups that have been most outspoken about the VA’s failings.
“Most of our members are in their 20s and 30s, and expect digital platforms that can deliver,” said Paul Rieckhoff, who leads Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). “Over the past few years, and in our 2014 IAVA Member Survey, many of our veterans have shared the struggles and confusion they face when utilizing the VA’s online portals, from attempting to schedule an appointment to applying for their disability benefits.”
Among McDonald’s other initiatives are systems for gathering feedback from staff members and veterans around the country.
The VA is the second largest department of the federal government after the Defense Department. It offers disability benefits and loans, in addition to being the largest healthcare system in the nation. It provides healthcare to 9 million people.
More Doctors Needed
Paradoxically, one thing that few veterans complain about is the quality of VA care.
“VA care is as good or better than the care you can receive outside the VA,” said Roscoe Butler, deputy director for healthcare in the National Veteran Affairs and Rehabilitation division of the American Legion. “The problem is the wait time throughout the VA system. In a lot of places it takes 6 months or longer to get a primary care appointment.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing McDonald is the VA’s need for more doctors. With salaries significantly lower than what medical personnel can earn in private practice, doctors are in short supply. When the number of veterans returning from the recent wars in the Middle East spiked, appointments became scarce.
McDonald has already begun a major recruiting effort at medical schools around the country, saying he plans to hire as many as 28,000 new health workers. He’s increased doctor pay significantly and increased the amount of student loan forgiveness that doctors can earn through work at the VA.
Since the new secretary took the reins in late July, the wait time for a patient to see a primary care doctor has shrunk by almost one-fifth. The VA now claims to complete 98 percent of appointments within 30 days of the veteran’s requested date or the date determined to be medically necessary by a physician. Still, by the standards of most healthcare systems, an appointment a month after it’s needed is hardly a success.
Veterans Wait for ‘Mission Accomplished’
McDonald said in an interview that aired Sunday on “60 Minutes” that he plans to fire as many as a thousand VA staff members in the wake of the scandal over wait times. Firings have to be individually approved by an administrative judge. But some staffers have already been placed on administrative leave while their dismissals are formalized, McDonald said.
The situation at the VA before McDonald took over was so toxic that the firings seem likely to improve veterans’ trust in the agency.
“While we applaud the secretary for his efforts to date, so far there’s only been one VA official that’s been fired from their job that’s no longer drawing a salary,” said Butler, of the American Legion, the first group to call publicly for Shinseki’s resignation.
Veterans groups are supportive of McDonald’s efforts so far, but remain skeptical as to whether they will result in real improvements for vets.
“Making big announcements from Washington is easy. Delivering on them is hard,” said Rieckhoff. “We’re all rooting for Secretary McDonald and the VA, but the IAVA members won’t be satisfied until the mission is accomplished and we see a measurable difference in local communities nationwide.”
Photos courtesy of the Department of Veteran Affairs.