Alaska News

During Alaska visit, VA secretary admits agency still has a long way to go

At a press meeting in Anchorage Tuesday, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald admitted his agency had lost the trust of many veterans. McDonald -- who was confirmed as VA secretary in July 2014 -- also said that some of the recent changes made to the agency have hurt Alaska veterans. But McDonald promised the VA would do better.

McDonald replaced former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who resigned in May 2014 amid problems with wait times and misconduct at VA clinics across the country. McDonald, a former head of Procter and Gamble and a West Point graduate, said that despite past problems, the VA has made great improvements. But he admitted there is still work to do in improving the nation's largest integrated health care system.

McDonald held a private meeting at the Anchorage VA clinic earlier Tuesday, speaking to about 100 local employees and veterans.

"As I have gone across the country and done these town hall meetings like I have just done here, VA employees have told me they feel like they are prisoners of a system that they can't change," McDonald said.

McDonald said his agency is working with companies like Disney to improve customer service and employee satisfaction.

But some of the recent changes intended to improve the system have actually increased wait times for veterans needing care, especially in Alaska.

In November 2014, Congress approved the Choice Act, which allows veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA health care facility to receive services from non-VA doctors. The program was modeled on an existing system that was in place in Alaska. That system partnered the VA with Alaska Native health clinics and tribal health organizations to offer care to the state's 79,000 veterans -- many of whom live off the road system.


But the implementation of a nationwide Choice Care system added new bureaucratic roadblocks to veterans in Alaska accustomed to an easier process -– including requiring them to go through a longer eligibility process via TriWest Healthcare Alliance, which manages the intake of Choice Care requests. McDonald said the inclusion of Alaska vets into the Choice Care system was part of an ongoing budget problem.

Cindy Massey, who helps manage the Choice program through the Alaska VA, said that the change added more than a week to the time it took for a veteran to receive medical services under the program.

"Before that, we would just do one-on-one calls or get the veteran a letter to tell them they have been authorized so that they can go have a procedure done and we would send that to the provider," Massey said.

McDonald admitted that the changes didn't work in Alaska.

"I had to force people, in a sense, to go through that Choice program just to use that money," the secretary said. "That's not the right decision for Alaska."

Despite the challenges, McDonald said the VA has made great strides in increasing veterans' access to health care and other services. He cited a 30 percent decrease in homeless veterans across the U.S. and 7 million more VA appointments in 2014 as recent successes.

McDonald said he was also able to help more veterans by getting permission from Congress to move money from several programs to fill budget holes in others. With more than 70 different budget line items, McDonald said he wants more flexibility to be able to move money around the agency.

But McDonald said his authority to continue to doing that runs out at the end of the federal fiscal year, on Sept. 30.

And more important, McDonald said, was the agency's commitment to make real changes to the system – a system in which many veterans had lost faith.

"We know that across the nation trust has been compromised with the VA, particularly in 2014, and we are going to have to earn it back, one veteran at a time," McDonald said.

McDonald will hold another town hall event for veterans in Wasilla on Thursday at the Curtis Menard Sports Center from 5 to 6 p.m. The VA said it will also have 2,000 telephone call-in slots for people who won't be able to attend the meeting in person. To call in to the event, dial 800-767-1750 and enter the event code: 79132.

Sean Doogan

Sean Doogan is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch and Alaska Dispatch News.