Veterans seeking medical treatment at many of the nation’s VA hospitals may soon see a significant improvement in customer service. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has a new leader. Robert McDonald, the newly appointed secretary of Veterans Affairs, has declared war on inferior customer service.
He has promised to mobilize personnel and resources in a collaborative effort to remove obstacles and increase access to services. He has also pledged to improve the coordination of services so that veterans have an easier time accessing services both within and outside the VA system which often resembles a maze.
McDonald, who took the helm in August, was named by President Obama to replace former secretary Eric Shinenski, who resigned earlier this year amid reports of lengthy wait times and false reports. Initial whistle-blower complaints out of a Phoenix area facility alleged that Veterans were forced to wait an average of three months to receive appointments they should have received within 14 to 30 days.
It was also reported that administrative staff concealed the lengthy wait times by falsifying wait list documents. Supervisors were reported to have directed or, in some cases, condoned the misconduct by looking the other way. Though some Vets were said to have died while waiting for treatment, there was no confirmation that the deaths were specifically related to the delays.
McDonald’s plan to improve customer service at VA hospitals has been well received by many vets. One young man, a 15 year veteran well spoke and personable, injured in Iraq and presently employed by the VA medical center in Atlanta is enthusiastic in his praise for the facility’s staff. “Medically,” he says, “My hat is off to the nurses and doctors. The problem is the long wait for processing benefit claims.”
Another vet, also employed by the Atlanta facility, echoes similar sentiments, “Bob McDonald, is a good man,” he says, “He will clean it up.” Indeed, McDonald appears to have already fostered hope for an improved system. At a recent breakfast meeting, he told attendees, “We know that the trust has been compromised with the VA. And we know that we’re going to have to win back that trust – one veteran at a time.”
McDonald, a West Point graduate, served for five years as a captain in the Army and also served as CEO of multinational consumer goods manufacturer, Proctor and Gamble. His plan, to measure the VA healthcare system’s progress towards improving customer service, by a single metric, “The outcomes we provide for veterans,” includes four components.
McDonald plans to name a customer service chief to lead a nationwide customer service initiative. According to McDonald, the new office will be charged with driving the, “VA culture and practices to understand and respond to the expectations” of veterans. He also has plans to improve service coordination by creating a unified system which would prevent the redundancies resulting from multiple websites with separate passwords and different entry points.
To increase collaboration between VA and other public and private providers, McDonald proposes building a network that will allow vets to seek treatment outside of the VA system when necessary or more expedient. Additionally, he believes that reduced costs and increased productivity can be achieved by having different agencies share the costs for administrative and other support staff.
Finally, McDonald has the unenviable task of ensuring that disciplinary action is taken against VA employees who do not support the agency’s values. Reports detailing disciplinary actions have differed in the last few weeks. Initial reports claim that 40 VA employees have faced disciplinary action and as many as 1000 more of the agency’s 278,000 member workforce could face adverse action. According to McDonald, what the VA, “Is most concerned about is caring for veterans. So if someone has violated our values and we think has done bad things, we move them out.”
While many veterans probably appreciate McDonald’s efforts and are likely to experience an improved customer service experience, some are happy with the services they currently receive. Barbara Bevacqua, a 72-year-old veteran of the air force, is especially grateful to VA doctors and nurses for their excellent care.
Bevacqua, who reported to her local VA medical facility to have her pacemaker monitored, was surprised but relieved to find herself in the hands of caring and competent medical staff who discovered a severe blockage in a major artery. “Before, I knew what was happening… and I didn’t know because I had no symptoms, they had discovered the problem and fixed me up!” she says with a huge smile.
Her grin is contagious. Her enthusiasm is reflected in the lighthearted and pleasant rapport she has established with the doctors and nurses as well as the support and administrative staff. Perhaps under the leadership of new secretary of Veterans Affairs, Robert McDonald, veterans all over the country may soon experience the same or, even better, an improved level of customer service at every VA hospital.
By Constance Spruill