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Health, Science & Tech

Visiting U.S. VA Secretary Says Veterans' Woes Weren't Unique To Pittsburgh

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Megan Harris
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90.5 WESA
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert A. McDonald speaks to reporters following an appearance at the Veterans of Foreign Wars' 116th National Convention held in Pittsburgh.

Months-long wait times between appointments, rampant Legionnaire’s contamination, controversy over data manipulation and other problems plaguing Pittsburgh’s veteran’s affairs office were an unfortunate norm nationwide, the department head said Tuesday.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert A. McDonald, an Army veteran and former CEO of Proctor & Gamble Co., spoke at the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ 116th National Convention in Downtown Pittsburgh shortly before President Barack Obama took center stage.

McDonald, who replaced former chief Eric Shinseki in 2014, took responsibility for the scandals. He said he can't change what happened, but he can help ensure it never happens again.

"On behalf of VA, I'm deeply sorry,” he said. “I'm sorry for the veterans who were affected and their families. To the families who lost loved ones and to those who lost confidence in the VA health care system, I apologize. This was a tragedy, and we've got to fix it. We've got to regain the trust of every veteran in the nation."

About 91 percent of the VA’s medical centers nationwide have replaced their directors or leadership teams since his tenure began, McDonald said.

Pittsburgh’s latest interim director Barbara Forsha took over in June after former director Terry Gerigk Wolf was fired in 2014. At the time, the city’s office was mired in scandal from a fatal Legionnaire’s outbreak three years ago and investigations suggesting long wait times were being purposely hid by VA employees.

McDonald said the VA has since expanded its capacity for care, hiring 844 new employees in the Pittsburgh region alone. Nationally, veterans booked 7 million more appointments last year than in the one year prior, he said. Of those, 2.5 million were held within VA health centers; the other 4.5 million patients were seen through partner referrals like UPMC.

Pittsburgh-area clinics also extended their office hours to accommodate the high demand, he said. Area patients accounted for 425,000 of last year’s health visits. About 98 percent were seen within 30 days of filing a request, McDonald said.

He said the office needs to be more transparent, efficient and responsive, but it will take time.

"We know that across the nation, trust has been compromised,” he said. “We're working to earn it back one veteran at a time. One veteran's family at a time."

There will be no tolerance for employees "who violate VA values," he said.

"We've got to do this in a deliberate way, so that when we do arraign someone, when we do accuse someone, when we do find someone, when we do seek a disciplinary action against someone, that we have taken the right steps so it sticks."

McDonald said the VA is currently investigating more than 100 people.