Just three months after taking the reins of the embattled US Department of Veterans Affairs, VA Secretary Robert McDonald announced on Monday the department with more than 300,000 employees will be undergoing restructuring that will include firings and office-wide reforms.
McDonald made the announcement the day before his first Veterans Day at the helm of the department. The former Procter & Gamble executive took over the department in July, after Eric Shinseki resigned from the post amid a scandal revealing thousands of veterans were experiencing long delays in receiving health care, and indications that staff had been messing with waiting lists to cover up the problem.
While speaking at a forum held by theWashington Post on Monday, McDonald explained that the reshuffling will be "the largest restructuring in the department's history." The move is largely aimed at reducing the wait times for veterans in VA facilities, which can last longer than 90 days in some cases. At the event, McDonald said "disciplinary action" is being sought against 35 people, and up to 1,000 could eventually become targets. Over the past year, such action has reportedly already been handed down to 5,600 department workers.
Facing criticism from politicians like Arizona Senator John McCain for being too slow to hand high-level VA employees pink slips, McDonald explained at an event on Thursday that his new ability to fire did not come without "due process." McDonald was referring to recent legislation that cut down the time it takes to go through the process of firing officials at the VA. He said the process had been reduced to a few weeks, but that there was still some lag.
"The law didn't grant any kind of new power that would suddenly give me the ability to walk into a room and simply fire people," he said during a press conference at the time.
In an interview with CBS's 60 Minutes on Sunday, just one of a series of public appearances made by the secretary in the last week, he said individuals under the microscope were "people who violated our values."
"But Bob McDonald can't punish or fire a thousand people right now. He's discovering how different the Capitol is from capitalism," McDonald told correspondent Scott Pelley. "To fire a government manager he has to put together a case and prove it to an administrative judge."
Central Alabama's VA Director James Talton has been the only official to get the boot since McDonald's ascension to office, despite the 100-plus investigations waged on VA entities since July. Two senior-level employees retired while the firing process was underway, while Phoenix's VA director, for example, is on administrative leave after upwards of 3,500 veterans had been found to be waiting to receive care in his jurisdiction. McDonald recently announced that wait times at the Phoenix treatment facility had dropped by 37 percent.
In addition to the ensuing employee crackdown, during the 60 Minutes interview McDonald indicated a need to increase staff at VA hospitals and clinics. He said at the present time the system would need about 28,000 doctors, nurses, or medical professionals. President Barack Obama approved a bill this summer providing $16 billion to allow for new hires, as well as private healthcare options.
During a Veteran's Day video message, McDonald said "fixing access to VA care is important." According to McDonald, his office has a plan to do that and is dedicated to implementing it, but said "that process will take time."
Along with Monday's restructuring announcement, the VA also outlined a new customer service office in the works to boost accountability.
The VA currently has more than 9 million patients in its system — ranging from WWII veterans to soldiers returning from the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — making it the largest healthcare system in the country. According to the VA, more than 1.3 million claims were made to the Veterans Benefits Association in 2014 fiscal year, while the number of backlog claims had been reduced by 60 percent down to 243,000.
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