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VOL. 129 | NO. 175 | Tuesday, September 9, 2014

New VA Chief: Veterans Agency Too Complicated

MATTHEW DALY | Associated Press

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WASHINGTON (AP) – The Veterans Affairs Department with its 14 different password-protected websites is too complicated for most veterans to navigate, new Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald said Monday, promising to make it easier for them to get disability benefits, health care, job training and other benefits.

The VA must "put veterans and the center of everything we do," he said.

McDonald took over the agency in July after former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned amid a political furor over veterans in need of medical care having to wait months for appointments at VA hospital and clinics. Investigators said efforts to cover up or hide the delays were systemic throughout the agency's network of nearly 1,000 hospitals and clinics.

At his first news conference as secretary, McDonald unveiled what he called a three-point plan to rebuild trust among veterans, improve service delivery and set a course for the agency's long-term future. The plan should be implemented by Veterans Day, Nov. 11, he said.

The former Procter & Gamble CEO also said he wants to make the VA less formal, starting with his own title. "Call me Bob," not Mr. Secretary, he said.

He gave his cellphone number to a roomful of reporters as a sign of his intent to open up what he called the VA's closed culture, which he said has made it difficult to root out problems at the agency's far-flung local and regional offices.

On Tuesday, McDonald is scheduled to testify before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee about a report by the department's inspector general on delays in patient care at the VA's Phoenix medical center, where a whistleblower first exposed long delays in patient care.

The report said workers falsified waitlists while their supervisors looked the other way or even directed it, resulting in chronic delays for veterans seeking care. The VA's inspector-general's office identified 40 patients who died while awaiting appointments in Phoenix, but the inspector-general's report said officials could not "conclusively assert that the absence of timely quality care caused the deaths of these veterans."

Three high-ranking officials at the Phoenix facility have been placed on leave, however, while they appeal a department decision to fire them.

McDonald called the report troubling and said VA officials "feel terrible" about the problems the report revealed.

"We have worked on remedies for everything that they pointed out," he said, noting that three of 25 recommendations by the inspector general have already been implemented.

"We are very sorry for what happened in Phoenix and we are working very hard to learn from it and pass those learnings around the entire system so that this does not happen again," he said.

Follow Matthew Daly on Twitter: twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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