Acting VA chief visits department's Phila. hospital
By TRICIA L. NADOLNY | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: June 24, 2014
Sloan Gibson, acting secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, visited the Philadelphia VA hospital Monday and encouraged potential whistle-blowers to come forward with concerns, as part of a goodwill tour amid the national appointment-delays scandal.
Gibson's visit shed no new light on why the medical center in University City or the clinic it runs in Horsham were targeted for added scrutiny, according to local House members who met with him Monday. Gibson did not speak or appear publicly during his visit.
"I asked some questions, but we still won't know until that audit is complete," said Rep. Patrick Meehan, a Republican from Delaware County who has indicated the investigation could stem from inaccurate bookkeeping, not the willful deception seen at other medical centers. "It was my sense he was here to listen to the employees in this facility."
The Philadelphia VA Medical Center and its Victor J. Saracini clinic in Horsham were among 112 facilities flagged for further investigation into scheduling practices in a VA audit released this month.
The report - which showed the depth of a scandal building for months - said staff at many facilities falsified records under pressure to hide waiting times for patients. But it did not specify what prompted the added reviews in Philadelphia, the regional hub for more than 57,000 veterans from Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey, and Horsham, which serves about 10,000 veterans.
Gibson, who took over as the acting head of the VA last month after Eric Shinseki resigned as director amid calls for his removal, met Monday with administrators and staff from the Philadelphia VA as well as members of Congress and their aides. In a statement, he said employees at the facility had recently reached out to 1,430 veterans identified as waiting for care to get them off waiting lists.
He said 100 new appointment slots had been opened in Philadelphia to help reduce wait times. And he said the Veterans Health Administration had pledged more than $500,000 to increase staffing and access to care, a measure also taken at other medical centers nationwide.
In his meeting with employees, Meehan said, Gibson was "very emphatic" in encouraging those with concerns to come forward. Gibson has said the institutional culture at the VA has discouraged some whistle-blowers from speaking out.
Rep. Chaka Fattah - a Philadelphia Democrat whose district includes the city's medical center and who has spoken in defense of the care offered there - stressed after Gibson's visit that no reports of improper behavior had surfaced in Philadelphia. Fattah, who was not at Monday's meeting but was briefed by a staff member who attended, said he received no new information about what triggered the review here.
"He did not share any of that publicly, and it would probably be improper," he said. "You don't want to prematurely make any type of statement until you know what all the facts are."
When the results of the ongoing audit are released, they will prove crucial in helping Congress address the changes needed in the VA system, Rep. Jon Runyan, a Burlington County Republican, said after Gibson's visit.
"The metrics we're given as Congress, the numbers have been cooked," said Runyan, who is on the House Armed Services and Veterans Affairs Committees. "And you really don't know who is performing well and who is doing bad."