VA chief vows renewed focus on customer service
Posted November 10, 2014
WASHINGTON — On the eve of Veterans Day, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced a reorganization Monday designed to make it easier for veterans to gain access to the sprawling department and its maze-like websites.
VA Secretary Robert McDonald called the restructuring the largest in the department's history and said it will bring a singular focus on customer service to an agency that serves 22 million veterans.
"As VA moves forward, we will judge the success of all our efforts against a single metric: the outcomes we provide for veterans," McDonald said. The VA's mission is to care for veterans, "so we must become more focused on veterans' needs," he said.
The VA has been under intense scrutiny since a whistleblower reported this spring that dozens of veterans may have died while awaiting treatment at the Phoenix VA hospital, and that appointment records were manipulated to hide the delays. A report by the department's inspector general said workers falsified wait lists while their supervisors looked the other way or even directed it, resulting in chronic delays for veterans seeking care and bonuses for managers who appeared to meet on-time goals.
The inspector general's office identified 40 patients who died while awaiting appointments in Phoenix, but said officials could not "conclusively assert" that the delays caused the deaths.
As part of the restructuring announced Monday, the VA will hire a chief customer service officer and simplify the way it is organized to deliver health care and other services, McDonald said. For instance, the department will create a single customer service structure with a limited number of regional divisions that will apply to all aspects of the agency, from health care to benefits, loan centers and even cemetery plots. The VA now has nine separate regional structures of varying size and at least a dozen websites, many with their own user names and passwords.
Eventually, McDonald would like all veterans to have one user name and password for all VA services. McDonald hopes to complete the reorganization within a year.
Veterans also should be able to communicate with officials in a single region to solve problems, McDonald said. Under the current structure, a veteran may live in one VA region for health care, another region for mortgage services and a third for veterans' benefits.
"I want the veterans to think of the VA as their VA – 'MyVA.' They own it. It's theirs. We are there for them," he said. "It will involve things like we need to create a customer service organization. We have pockets of customer service throughout, but I defy you to figure out – this is what veterans tell me – I defy you to figure out how to plug into the VA."
The reorganization is designed to provide veterans with "a seamless, integrated and responsive customer service experience — whether they arrive at VA digitally, by phone or in person," he said.
Dr. Monte Brown, associate dean of veterans affairs at Duke University and vice president of administration for Duke University Health System, said the test of whether MyVA and its customer service departments work lies in the execution.
"Will they have the authority and the ability to get through the bureaucracy themselves, or will it just be a new layer on top of existing bureaucracy and they add almost like a call center on top of it?" Brown said.
McDonald, a former chief executive of consumer-goods giant Procter & Gamble, has been pushing to refocus the VA on customer service since taking over the troubled agency in July, following the scandal over long patient wait times for veterans seeking health care.
McDonald has been urging VA employees to refer to veterans as customers and to refer to him as "Bob" rather than "Secretary." He also has given out his cellphone number to reporters and veterans alike and urged them to call him with questions and suggestions.
Some members of Congress have disputed the inspector general's report on the Phoenix deaths and suggested that language casting doubt on the link between the delays and patient deaths was inserted at the suggestion of top VA officials in Washington. The IG's office and the VA have denied that claim.
Three high-ranking officials at the Phoenix facility have been placed on leave while they appeal a department decision to fire them. Four other high-ranking executives around the country were targeted for removal, but only one was fired. Two officials retired and a third was granted an extension for more time to respond to the VA's decision.
The scandal led to the ouster of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and to a new law making it easier for veterans to get VA-paid care from local doctors.
McDonald told the CBS News program "60 Minutes" on Sunday that the VA is considering disciplinary action against more than 1,000 employees.
"We're talking about people who violated our values," he said.
To help lessen wait times, he also wants the VA to hire about 28,000 physicians and health care workers, including 2,500 mental health professionals.
Brown said he wants to see change come quickly but handled with care.
"Day to day, we still have to take care of the veterans we're taking care of now," he said. "So, I worry about how long will this transition take?"
Veterans, who simply want the benefits they've earned, are similarly concerned.
"What needs to happen first is for veterans to walk into a clinic (and) have a great experience, from setting up the appointment until having received the care they need," said Bill Rausch, political director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.