'I’m Bob': McDonald says he will tackle VA hierarchy

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Bob McDonald adjusts charts during a press conference at VA's headquarters in Washington, D.C., Sept. 8, 2014.


By HEATH DRUZIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 8, 2014

WASHINGTON — It’s not every day that a Cabinet secretary gives out his cell phone number to a room full of reporters, but that’s what Department of Veterans Affairs chief Bob McDonald did Monday as part of a bid to show the VA is changing a hierarchical culture that stifled criticism and ultimately contributed to a scandal that cost McDonald’s predecessor his job.

While McDonald — who corrected a reporter who referred to him as Mr. Secretary by saying, “I’m Bob, really" — may be a little easier to reach now, the effectiveness of a 90-day plan he unveiled to fix a badly-broken program VA health care system is likely how veterans and observers will assess the beginning of his tenure.

RELATED: More Stars and Stripes coverage of veterans news and the Veterans Affairs scandal

At a news conference in Washington, D.C., McDonald announced the “Road to Veterans Day,” three-pronged plan to make quick improvements to a healthcare system that has allowed veterans to languish for years while awaiting care and seen administrators falsify records in order to cover up the delays.

“The first strategy is to rebuild trust,” said McDonald, who also personally apologized to all veterans affected by the scandal.

The VA has been under fire since a whistleblower revealed that administrators at a Phoenix VA hospital had manipulated records to make it look like patients had shorter wait times, even though they often waited for months, some dying before getting care. While a recent VA Inspector General report did not conclusively link the delays to deaths, it did find deep problems and a “corrosive culture” throughout the national VA health system, far beyond Phoenix.

A rigid hierarchy has led to poor communication in the department, with lower level employees afraid to voice concerns about problems and made the veterans the system was supposed to serve the lowest priority, McDonald said. As part of his strategy to change the culture, he said he has directed all VA facilities to conduct town hall meetings in their communities to get feedback from the veterans they serve.

“We want to look at everything we do through the lens of the veteran,” he said.

The plan also calls for a short-term streamlining of the appointment scheduling process while the VA works on installing entirely new scheduling software as well as simplifying the rules for where veterans can get care.

“We are too complicated from the veteran’s standpoint,”

McDonald has received early plaudits from veterans groups for the long national tour of veterans facilities he embarked on in his first few weeks and his push to make changes quickly.

“In his first few weeks, Secretary McDonald has continued to show veterans he has our back,” Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America President Paul Rieckhoff said in a released statement after Monday’s press conference.

Implementing those changes, though, is a daunting task and for now, McDonald has offered few details on what the changes will look like on the ground. For starters, the VA’s ambitious plans include hiring tens of thousands more doctors and nurses, a drive that will be more difficult given the VA’s badly tainted reputation.

“I am worried about our ability to recruit and retain people,” McDonald said.

McDonald is also under pressure to fire administrators who caused healthcare delays and were involved in falsifying data, some apparently getting bonuses for fraudulently positive wait-time data at their facilities. Asked by reporters why the VA hadn’t fired more people connected to the scandal, McDonald urged patience.

“While those investigations are going on, we cannot take definitive action but we’re doing the best we can,” he said.

Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Bob McDonald talks to the media at VA's headquarters in Washington, D.C., Sept. 8, 2014

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