Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald addressed a veterans group for the first time since taking over the troubled agency last month, calling his plans to fix it "an opportunity we can't miss nor underestimate."
"This is an opportunity for me to make a difference in the lives of veterans I care so much about," McDonald, a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger, told a National Disabled American Veterans convention in Las Vegas on Saturday.
He praised a $16.3 billion law signed by President Barack Obama on Thursday to overhaul the department. Among other provisions, it devotes $10 billion to pay private doctors to treat qualifying veterans who can't get prompt appointments at the VA's nearly 1,000 hospital and outpatient clinics, and $5 billion to hire more doctors and other medical and mental health professionals.
Reports that dozens of people died while waiting to see a doctor and that employees covered up long wait times at a Phoenix VA hospital helped touch off a national firestorm over veteran care and led the former VA secretary to resign.
"We didn't hold managers accountable for retaliation against whistleblowers," McDonald said.
McDonald also was scheduled to tour the VA Medical Center in North Las Vegas, where long waits for veterans to receive care have been blamed on a shortage of doctors, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported (http://bit.ly/1ktqbfG ).
Joseph Johnston, national commander of the National Disabled American Veterans, said McDonald "painted a clear picture" of how the VA must proceed to improve its performance and outlined "a clear, thoughtful agenda" that the organization supports.
That includes realistic funding levels, greater commitment to transparency, focusing incentives on patient outcomes and satisfaction, improving technology and systems, and commissioning an independent audit of VA scheduling practices, he said.
"We look forward to working closely with Secretary McDonald to strengthen the VA," Johnston said in a statement. "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 health care."
Some 4,000 of the organization's 1.2 million members attended the convention.
Information from: Las Vegas Review-Journal, http://www.lvrj.com