3 Reasons There's No Quick Fix for Department of Veterans Affairs

And why cutting waiting times costs money the agency doesn't have.

ByABC News
November 6, 2014, 5:00 PM
Traffic backs up as patients arrive for treatment at the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital facility on May 30, 2014 in Hines, Illinois.
Traffic backs up as patients arrive for treatment at the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital facility on May 30, 2014 in Hines, Illinois.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

— -- intro:Nearly six months after the scandal that rocked the Department of Veterans Affairs over outrageous wait times and secret waiting lists, the new secretary says things continue to improve but he can’t fix everything immediately.

Secretary Robert McDonald took over the embattled VA in July after former Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation. With only five days until the deadline for his Road to Veterans Day plan—the roadmap he has laid out for his first 90 days--at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, McDonald discussed how far the VA has improved and the shortcomings still facing the agency.

quicklist:1title: Fixing Wait Times Costs $$$text:One of the biggest problems facing the VA came out of whistleblower claims–subsequently verified by Inspector General reports—that wait times for veterans were as long as 21 months. And in many cases patients were put on “secret” waiting lists to make it appear they were meeting the department’s 14-day wait time goal.

Today, according to McDonald, wait times in Phoenix, for example, are down 37 percent. New patient and primary care wait times across the agency are down 18 percent. But further reductions will take more time and he needs more money to hire additional staff because the backlog involves veterans from conflicts dating many decades back. “You don't see the full effects of a war on the veterans of that war until about 40 years after,” McDonald said.

The VA asked Congress for $17.6 billion and received $16 billion. Secretary McDonald told reporters “we need more.”

quicklist:2title: Still Can't Remove Bad Employees text:The people accused of creating secret lists and hiding wait times are for the most part still on the job. McDonald has come under fire from Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona for not acting “swiftly” in firing VA executives involved in the cover ups.

But the secretary says he has "no new power to suddenly walk into a room and suddenly start firing people,” and reminded that the FBI and DOJ are both investigating criminal wrongdoing and he can’t take action until their work is done. He also can't yank the pensions of wrongdoers at the agency.

“The law says that you cannot claw back the retirements earned over a career unless the person commits treason or treason-like activity,” he said. “I've got to wait for FBI and Department of Justice to determine if a criminal violation has been committed... I do not have the authority to claw back on their retirement.”

quicklist:3title: Choice Cards Need to be Rolled Outtext:Part of the law to fix the VA included “Choice Cards” that allow veterans to obtain care outside of the VA healthcare system. The deadline for those cards to go into effect was Nov. 5. But according to McDonald the “deadline” is only a promise to start the process, not to deliver all 9 million cards to be issued.

“The law didn’t specify specifically which cards would go out on which days and which addresses—laws generally are not that clear,” he said. “All of us were fearful if we sent 9 million cards out (at once) we’d create chaos.”

Instead, the VA released cards yesterday for all veterans living outside of a 40-mile radius of a VA hospital. Next are those who have been waiting more than 30 days followed by everyone else. The new VA secretary, a former chief executive officer of Procter & Gamble Co., is confident he will get to the bottom of the scandal and prevent new ones because the job “is a calling” for him.

“When you’ve run an $85 billion company in 200 countries around the world and you speak multiple languages and you’ve operated in those countries and you’ve traveled to 41 different (VA) sites, it’s pretty hard to hide stuff,” he said. “But it takes time to change.”