New VA secretary addresses veterans groups for first time

The VA healthcare scandal "is a story of failed leadership" the agency's new leader tells veterans

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald spoke Saturday at the National Disabled American Veterans convention in Las Vegas, his first such address to vets since taking over the agency last month.

“Over these next several months, I am going to keep traveling -- extensively -- to hear directly from our employees, veterans and other stakeholders,” McDonald told convention attendees. "This is an opportunity for me to make a difference in the lives of veterans I care so much about."

Reports of people dying while waiting to see doctors and long wait times at a Phoenix VA hospital created a huge controversy around veteran care, leading previous VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki to resign at the end of May.

“The problems we discovered in Phoenix were systemic, extending well beyond that one location,” McDonald said. “And the Phoenix story is about more than just a crisis in veteran access. To be sure, it is a story of failed leadership.”

He described how the problems manifested themselves.

“Employees who were looking out for veterans and identified systemic problems or poor leadership were sometimes punished for doing so,” he said. “We didn't hold managers accountable who hid their poor performance or retaliated against whistle-blowers. We failed to adequately assess and quantify the resources needed to provide care we are obligated to provide.”

He also praised a $16.3-billion law signed by President Obama on Thursday, which aims to solve the alarming backlog for care at VA facilities by allowing veterans to see private doctors at the government's expense -- an allocation of $10 billion. Veterans can use the new option if they face a wait of 30 days or more for an appointment at a VA facility or live more than 40 miles from one.

Joseph Johnston, national commander of Disabled American Veterans, said in a statement that the group looks forward "to working closely with Secretary McDonald to strengthen the VA."
"The secretary's commitment to accurately assess the resources needed to expand VA clinics and hospitals and hire more doctors and nurses is an important step toward making sure the VA provides America's veterans timely, high-quality healthcare," Johnston said.

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