The director of the James A. Haley VA Medical Center has a message for every one of the Tampa hospital's more than 4,800 employees: Answer the phone.
Veterans calling the medical center often endure long wait times in their struggle to reach someone, hospital director Kathleen R. Fogarty wrote in an email Monday to the employees. That, she said, has to change.
"The most basic thing you can do is answer the phone and call veterans back in a timely manner," said Haley spokeswoman Karen Collins. "That's the No. 1 rule of customer service."
The reminder comes at a time when the beleaguered U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is working to rebuild after a series of major crises, including allegations of wrongful deaths caused by delayed medical care at a Phoenix VA facility.
Veterans here have complained about many of the issues plaguing the VA nationwide, such as long waits for medical care and claims decisions. Whistle-blowers have accused a clinic at the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center of canceling more than 1,000 consultation referrals last year without checking the patients' needs.
Although the Young VA has not sent out such an email, a spokesman said Monday it's working on phone service improvements.
Collins said veterans had complained in focus groups and town hall meetings about long waits on the phone at Haley.
Every employee is responsible for keeping contact information up to date and answering veterans' calls, Fogarty wrote.
"They wait to get through and once they do, the phone just rings on the other end - sometimes for 20 minutes or more! - or they never get a return call if they leave voicemail," she wrote.
Her email does not signify a change in policy or procedure, Collins said; rather, "it's just bringing it to the forefront of the staff's mind that everybody has this responsibility."
Fogarty's email follows a visit to the Haley VA on Wednesday by Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert A. McDonald. The secretary urges people to call him Bob, freely distributes his cellphone number and said he fields calls from veterans at all hours.
Reached at that number on the first try Monday evening, McDonald said the Haley system's renewed commitment to access is a good thing.
"The VA is all about customer service. It's about caring for our veterans who have done so much for us," he said. "They're the customer. They're the boss."
He added: "While your ability to call me on my cellphone may appear hokey, it's representative of the kind of open culture that I think we want."
Improvements to phone service are under way at the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System, which includes Young VA as its main facility, spokesman Jason Dangel said. Though some veterans occasionally have problems with the system, he said, steps such as adding voicemail boxes, studying call metrics and streamlining call options will help.
"With an organization this large, you're going to have minor problems, so our stance on that is to identify those ... so we can look at it and try to correct it as soon as possible," Dangel said.
Vietnam War veteran Andy Marshall, who uses the Young VA center, said he has experienced long phone wait times but that those on the other end are simply helping others at the moment.
"The phone does ring for a while sometimes without anybody answering it," said Marshall, a national area supervisor for the Disabled American Veterans advocacy group. "But they're not just looking at the phone and watching it ring and not doing anything. That's not what happens. ... They do the best with what they've got."
Contact Claire McNeill at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3339. Follow @clairemcneill.