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Nov 10, 4:17 PM EST

VA chief vows renewed focus on customer service


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VA chief vows renewed focus on customer service

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- On the eve of Veterans Day, the Veterans Affairs Department 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 waitlists 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.

The reorganization, to be known as "MyVA," 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," McDonald said.

McDonald, a former CEO 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 a scandal over long patient wait times for veterans seeking health care and widespread falsification of records by VA employees and managers to cover up the delays.

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 cell phone 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. The law also shortens and streamlines the appeals process for employees who are fired.

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.

McDonald's comment about 1,000 employees facing discipline is one of several numbers regarding employee discipline the VA secretary has offered in recent days. At a news conference last Thursday, McDonald said the VA has proposed disciplinary action - up to and including firing - against more than 40 employees nationwide since June. Those cases are all related to the wait-time scandal and manipulation of records to hide delays.

At an appearance Friday at the National Press Club, McDonald said the VA has taken or is considering disciplinary action against 5,600 employees over the past year, although aides later clarified that most of those actions were not related to the health-care scandal.

"We are very serious about making sure that we hold people accountable," McDonald said.

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