PHILADELPHIA — Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald on Thursday ordered a systemwide review of the agency’s training programs after the Philadelphia VA benefits office compiled an employee training guide that appeared to depict veterans as Oscar the Grouch.
In a statement, McDonald apologized and said any comparison to the cranky “Sesame Street” character who lives in a trash can was “clearly contrary” to the agency’s mission and the “kind of open culture we want in the new VA.” He said use of the training materials, which was first reported this week by The Philadelphia Inquirer, would be discontinued.
McDonald’s statement did not address the explanation offered by Diana Rubens, director of the city’s VA office, who insisted that dozen Oscar references in the guide pertained not to irate or grumpy vets, but to VA employees who may have had to respond to their concerns at town-hall meetings.
A VA spokeswoman in Washington said McDonald would not elaborate on who was meant to be the misanthropic Muppet — employees or veterans.
“We celebrate feedback, both negative and positive, as an opportunity to improve our service to veterans and accomplish our mission,” McDonald said in the statement. “We understand that we will have to earn the trust of veterans and the American people, and we are committed to doing so, one veteran at a time.”
His comments followed a surge in news coverage and scrutiny on the office in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood, which processes benefits claims for more than 825,000 people in the region.
On Wednesday, representatives from the House Committee on Veterans Affairs called the office to seek answers about the document’s origins, according to a committee staffer. As word spread, many veterans in the region and beyond said they found it insulting. U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Bucks County, Pa., called the materials “tone-deaf.”
“Once again, we’re forced to ask, ‘When will the VA learn?’” he said.
The guide, titled “What to Say to Oscar the Grouch — Dealing With Veterans During Town Hall Claims Clinics,” was presented to employees last week in advance of two town-hall events held Wednesday.
It included routine instructions, such as dressing professionally, but also told employees not to “get in the swamp with the alligator” when dealing with angry veterans, and gave advice on sensing an oncoming “outburst” from a claimant, saying veterans could be demanding and unrealistic.
Rubens opened the town halls by addressing the training material, saying it was meant to help employees who did not regularly work with veterans keep their “inner Oscar” from coming out. Rubens, through her office spokeswoman, declined to comment further after McDonald’s statement Thursday.
Ramona Joyce, a spokeswoman for the VA in Washington, stood by Rubens’ initial characterization of the training material. “I think everybody knows that this training was not intended to call veterans ‘grouches,’” she said.
This month, McDonald ordered every VA benefits office and hospital to hold town hall events as a way to rebuild trust with veterans that has been lost through of the national scandal over substandard services.
In his statement, McDonald said he ordered the review of the training programs “to ensure that they are consistent with the new culture we are working to create.”
©2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.