PHOENIX - Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald visited a VA hospital Friday for the first time since taking over the embattled agency last month, meeting with veterans and health care providers and vowing to restore trust in the organization.
Reports that dozens of people died while waiting to see a doctor and that employees covered up long wait times at the Phoenix VA hospital helped touch off a national firestorm over veteran care. The former VA secretary was forced to resign, and President Barack Obama on Thursday signed $16.3 billion law to overhaul the department.
McDonald said his visit to the Phoenix hospital was the first of what would be many across the country in the next few months.
"I've been on the job about a week or so, and I'm more encouraged than I've been before," the former Procter and Gamble CEO said. "This is doable."
He promised to regain veterans' trust by changing the culture of the agency. The department announced Friday that it has initiated independent reviews of its scheduling and access practices to compare the VA hospitals' performance with that of other health care systems.
The review will be carried out by The Joint Commission, a health care accrediting body.
McDonald, a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger, held up a button that employees will wear with the acronym "ICARE," which stands for integrity, commitment, advocacy and respect. McDonald said it represents the VA's effort to return to its original mission of caring for men and women who fought for the country.
"We're going to look at everything we do from the lens of the veterans," McDonald said. "Not from the lens of Veterans Affairs."
As part of that effort, McDonald said he will ensure that "employees who have violated the trust of veterans or the department are held accountable."
So far, the Phoenix VA hospital has taken emergency measures to get care for veterans who were placed on long, clandestine waitlists. McDonald said the hospital has scheduled all primary-care appointments for wait-listed vets, opened temporary mobile medical units from other states and planned to open a new clinic to help with demand.