Sloan Gibson, the deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs, was in Seattle on Thursday as part of a national tour listening to employees at facilities run by his agency.
The VA has been rocked in recent months by reports of slow care and findings that workers falsified records to cover up the delays.
Gibson told Seattle reporters that his priority is to get vets off waitlists and into clinics.
Accountability and transparency are also high on that list. Gibson said the organization has not always held people accountable for misconduct and negligence. That, he said has to change.
“We have seen a lot of that foundation of trust erode over the last number of months. We understand, and I understand that we’re going to have to earn that back,” Gibson said.
The VAs in Puget Sound are tackling waitlists by offering expanded clinic hours and weekend appointments. But right now, Gibson said wages are not competitive enough to recruit the number of people needed to do the job.
Patient John Wagnitz has been coming to the VA for five years. He said once he gets care, it’s usually good.
“Trying to get anything done is a long process, but once the process is under way things move along pretty well,” Wagnitz said.
Wagnitz served in the Navy during Vietnam. He uses a wheelchair and has several health issues.
Recently he applied to be declared catastrophically disabled by the VA. For him it would mean that he wouldn’t have to pay copays for care or prescriptions.
“But that requires your primary care doctor here to fill out an online form,” he said. “My doctor or the care provider that was assigned to me had no knowledge of that – they did not know what I was talking about,” Wagnitz said.
Wagnitz did the legwork and got the form. But he said it was incredibly complicated. Wagnitz credits his provider for sticking with it to get the forms filed.
Gibson would not address the recent findings from an audit conduct at Puget Sound VAs. The audit found that a third of hospital schedulers at the Lakewood and Seattle VA were instructed to edit how long vets waited for appointments.
Gibson said the Inspector General’s Office was handling those findings. He won’t have information until they finish their report.
“We’re going to go back in and look was there an intent to deceive here or was it just miscommunication – did somebody not understand how the scheduling system works?” he said.
“Where it’s benign, we’re going to move on. Where it’s not benign, there will be accountability and if that happens here it happens here.”
Gibson said the Puget Sound VAs and others across the country would will hold town hall meetings by the end of September to hear concerns from veterans.