At Phoenix VA, Obama says more work to do for veterans

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President Barack Obama speaks next to new VA Secretary Robert McDonald during a meeting on veterans issues at the Phoenix VA Medical Center Friday, March 13, 2015. President Barack Obama speaks next to new VA Secretary Robert McDonald during a meeting on veterans issues at the Phoenix VA Medical Center Friday, March 13, 2015.
PHOENIX (AP) -- Amid persistent complaints about veterans' health care, President Barack Obama acknowledged lingering weaknesses Friday in the federal government's response to the chronic delays and false waiting lists that triggered a national outcry over the Veterans Affairs health system last year.

Obama said that while VA Secretary Robert McDonald is "chipping away" at the problem, "what we do know is there is still more work to do."

In his first trip to the Phoenix VA hospital whose practices sparked the scandal, Obama announced the creation of an advisory committee to recommend further steps the VA could take to improve veterans' access to health care.

Obama met with veterans, VA employees and elected officials, including Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, Arizona's two Republican senators. He said lawmakers specifically raised questions about the slow pace of implementing a new law meant to increase health care choices for veterans.

"The final issue I heard a lot about today," he said, "was the need to restore trust and confidence in the VA system. Trust is something you can lose real quick."

But the president added, "Every veteran I talked to today said that the actual care they received once in the system was outstanding."

Other areas of concern, according to Obama: mental health and suicide prevention.

Obama's visit came amid questions from lawmakers who say veterans are still not benefiting from changes in the law that were meant to improve their access to care. A month ago, Obama drew criticism for traveling to Phoenix without stopping at the VA hospital.

House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., lamented that nearly a year after the scandal broke, the VA hasn't fired any Phoenix employees for falsifying wait times for veterans seeking care. He said efforts to hold employees accountable at this facility "have been repeatedly botched."

"It's becoming quite evident that this administration is either unwilling or unable to take accountability at VA seriously," Miller said in a statement.

Yet in advance of the visit, the White House defended the VA's actions to correct problems.

"Long after it fades from the headlines, this is something a lot of people have been working on and that he president feels strongly about," White House spokesman Eric Schultz said.

Obama also announced the creation of an advisory committee to address ways to improve the VA's service to veterans. The committee will consist of representatives from the private sector, veterans' organizations, government, health sciences and academics.

The Phoenix VA Medical Center prompted the scrutiny last year following reports that dozens of veterans died while awaiting treatment at the hospital. The ensuing scandal prompted the ouster of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. The agency's Phoenix director, Sharon Helman, also lost her job.

A series of government reports said workers throughout the country falsified wait lists while supervisors looked the other way. While veterans encountered chronic delays, the reports found managers who falsely appeared to meet on-time goals received bonuses.

In the aftermath, Congress approved a sweeping law to overhaul the VA and appropriated money to make it easier for veterans to get VA-paid private health care. It also limits the time VA employees have to appeal firings for alleged wrongdoing.

The Phoenix office brought a respected former director out of retirement to take controls of the office for a one-year assignment. Glen Grippen told an Arizona legislative panel this week that the Phoenix office has hired 320 new staff since January 2014, is opening three new Phoenix-area clinics and is preparing to remodel its main Phoenix hospital.

The VA says that between May 1 and Dec. 31 of last year it completed more than 37 million appointments nationwide, 1.8 million more than for the same period in 2013. The Phoenix VA health care system completed more than 476,000 appointments between May and Jan. 31 of this year, an increase of 19 percent over the previous year. The VA also said the Phoenix system completed 94 percent of appointments from October through January within 30 days of the date preferred by the patient.

But the doctor who sounded the alarm on problems with the Phoenix VA and helped bring about the changes said he is still frustrated about what he sees as a slow pace in reforms being carried out. He said McDonald has a nearly impossible job.

"If I ask you to go out and lift a 10,000-pound boulder and you go out and give it your best and can't do it, does that make you a bad guy? No. The boulder was just too big for anyone to lift," Dr. Sam Foote told The Associated Press on Thursday. "And that's somewhat of the situation that they're in."

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