TAMPA — After just two months in office, the man in charge of the nation's troubled VA system says he is working hard to "change the culture."
As evidence Wednesday, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert A. McDonald said Florida veterans now wait 162 days for a decision on a claim. In February 2013, the wait was 250 days.
He said the agency has reached out to more than 2,470 veterans in Tampa to get them off wait lists and into clinics, and has provided almost $1.7 million to get veterans into non-VA care in the community.
"We know that trust has been compromised, and we're working hard to re-earn that trust among the American people," he said at a news conference at Tampa's James A. Haley VA Medical Center.
Such changes are sorely needed at the embattled agency. Its former secretary, Eric Shinseki, resigned in May amid allegations that patients at a Phoenix VA facility died awaiting medical care. Members of Congress have accused employees of falsifying records to cover up treatment delays.
Veterans here have complained about long waits and the cancellation of more than 1,000 consultation referrals in 2013 without anyone checking to see whether patients had an urgent need to be seen by a doctor.
The agency recently unveiled a 90-day plan called The Road to Veterans Day. Its components: rebuild trust, improve care and reorganize the department to be veteran-centric so that "everybody thinks of the VA as their VA," McDonald said Wednesday.
"Bob McDonald gets it," said U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs and a frequent critic of the agency. "He came on board at a time when the VA was going through probably the worst crisis that they ever had. … We are looking forward to a secretary who is ready to actually get into the trenches."
McDonald's visit was part of a nationwide tour of facilities during his first 90 days in office. Before his tour of the hospital and its polytrauma center Wednesday, he visited the Sarasota National Cemetery and the St. Petersburg Regional Benefit Office.
Veterans at the St. Petersburg office reacted positively to McDonald's visit, said Andy Marshall, an area supervisor for the National Service office of Disabled American Veterans. Marshall works in the St. Petersburg building.
"His message was good. He seemed interested. He seemed sincere in his approach," Marshall said. A Vietnam veteran, Marshall wants to see a greater focus on recruiting doctors and nurses, fixing the claims process and speeding up health care. McDonald's answers to questions about those issues were satisfying, Marshall said.
McDonald has appeared at Washington meetings that his predecessor never attended, said Anthony Hardie, a Bradenton resident on the board of directors of Veterans for Common Sense, a nonprofit advocacy group. And McDonald's presence in the Tampa Bay area is significant, he said.
"He's clearly making sure that he is hearing what the concerns of veterans are," Hardie said. "I believe what the secretary is doing are very important first steps. At the same time, I'm still very guarded in my optimism."
The secretary acknowledged the department's deep issues.
"Too many of our employees have felt disenfranchised," he said. "They have not been included. Too many of our veterans have been disenfranchised."
He said the nearly 9 million veterans under VA care are the top priority, and leaders must work to ensure that veterans and employees are provided for. He called on every employee to be a whistle-blower.
"I want people to feel free to tell me what's going wrong, and I feel the formality that may have been existing may have gotten in the way of that," said McDonald, who freely distributes his cellphone number and said he fields calls from veterans at all hours.
Hardie said McDonald must consult all stakeholders to create real change in the department.
"It's like turning around a battleship, and it will be a long time before we know if the captain of the battleship is successful," Hardie said. "It feels like he's doing the right thing in terms of listening, but he needs to reach deeper."
Contact Claire McNeill at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3339. Follow @clairemcneill.