VA Secretary Robert McDonald appeared at a press conference today at the American Legion National Convention in Cincinnati. Interim Cincinnati VA leader Glenn Costie (left) was also with McDonald. Video produced by Barrie Barber.

VA secretary defends agency during Cincinnati American Legion address

McDonald also told delegates at the American Legion National Convention in Cincinnati on Wednesday the federal agency aims to provide access to primary health care and mental health services the same day it is requested by December.

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“You’ve heard many times that VA is broken,” McDonald told veterans. “Well, I disagree. We have challenges, yes. But VA can be transformed.”

McDonald’s statement comes as the VA has had well-documented issues across the country with months-long wait times for many veterans seeking appointments and claims some patients died while waiting for care.

The VA leader said he has pushed to transform the agency and has replaced 14 of 17 top executives since the former Proctor and Gamble CEO and West Point graduate took over two years ago. “Changing VA means changing leadership,” he said. The VA has fired more than 3,700 employees over the same time, but McDonald warned the agency could not “fire its way to excellence.”

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In the interim, the number of veterans making VA medical appointments has jumped by millions, he said.

Last March, for example, the VA handled 5.3 million appointments, a record and more than 700,000 compared to the same time two years ago, he said. Nationwide, in July 96 percent of appointments were seen within 30 days, 85 percent within seven days, and 22 percent the same day.

Today, the average wait time nationally for primary health care is five days, six days for specialty care, and two days for mental health counseling, he said.

The Army veteran said the average time to wait for a benefit claim is down 65 percent and the agency has scored highly in surveys for patient satisfaction.

The VA had a goal to end homelessness among veterans by last year. That goal was not met. However, McDonald said homelessness among veterans has dropped by nearly half since 2010.

Other problem areas remain to make gains, he said. He called on Congress to enact legislative reforms to cut the lengthy and “archaic” years-long benefit appeal process. Some veterans have waited 10 years for an appeal decision, he said.

“In five years, we can have an appeal resolved within one year of filing,” he said. “The legislation costs nothing and it will be more efficient and even less costly over time. What’s the alternative? More resources dedicated for a broken system.”

Under current law, the number of veterans waiting for a decision on an appeal will grow from 500,000 today to nearly 1.3 million by 2027, the VA leader said.

Vietnam veteran William Robert Wright, of Gillette, Wyoming, said he’s waited three years for an appeal on a VA claim. The former Marine who was with thousands of others at the convention likes McDonald’s goal to reduce wait times on appeals, but was skeptical it would become reality without more funding and employee training. “I don’t think he’ll make the goal, but it won’t be because he’s not trying,” he said.

Still, the 65-year-old veteran said younger service members should have priority. VA patient ranks have grown in recent years with hundreds of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans leaving the military and seeking VA health care and disability benefits.

Army veteran Nancy L. Harper, of Memphis, Tennessee, has used VA health care for more than two decades. As long as the American Legion and other organizations continue to work with the VA, change is more likely, she said. She said she has had no problems with surgeries and other health care at the VA and noted the agency has made strides to convert cumbersome paperwork into electronic records.

McDonald rejected talk of eliminating the VA health care system as some proponents of privatizing the system have argued.

“I suspect that proposal serves some party somewhere pretty well,” he said. “But that’s not transformational. In my mind it’s more along the lines of dereliction of duty. It doesn’t serve veterans well and it doesn’t sit well with me.”

In a brief interview with this media outlet, McDonald also said Wednesday the VA will work on a business plan to bring an estimated $20 million national VA national archive to the Dayton VA Medical Center campus. It has not been determined how much of the money might be from the VA and how much from the private sector, he said.

“We need authority from Congress, but we’re working on that,” he said.

The former P&G executive was back home where the Cincinnati VA Medical Center has been embroiled in ongoing investigations into whistle blower claims over patient care. For the past five months, Dayton VA Medical Center Director Glenn A. Costie has served as the interim director in Cincinnati. Costie, who appeared with McDonald at a press conference Wednesday, indicated he will return to Dayton once a permanent replacement is named.

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