VA chief promises reform in El Paso visit

Associated PressJuly 18, 2014 

Veterans Affairs Secretary

Veterans Affairs Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson speaks during a press conference at the local VA facility in El Paso, Texas, Friday, July 18, 2014. Gibson met with El Paso’s VA medical center officials and vowed to improve veterans’ access to health care.

JUAN CARLOS LLORCA — AP Photo

— Acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Sloan Gibson met with VA medical center officials in El Paso and vowed to improve veterans' access to health care.

Gibson met Friday with the VA center's leadership, employees and U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke to hear about lingering problems in providing care.

Gibson says the facility will receive an additional $5 million to facilitate access to doctors outside the VA. He also promised that VA officials will be accountable for past and future wrongdoings.

The secretary has taken the reins of a VA system rocked by a scandal showing records were falsified to hide months-long wait times for veterans to see a doctor. A VA audit showed facilities in El Paso and elsewhere in Texas had some of the longest wait times for medical appointments.

The local VA has reached out to close to 2,200 veterans to offer them appointments and opened a hotline so veterans can schedule appointments. They have also expanded their hours to allow for more appointment slots.

John Mendoza, the director of the local VA, said they are working on filling 15 positions for mental health professionals and have gotten commitments for eight of those jobs.

Gibson said that aside from getting veterans off the wait lists, they are working on correcting the issues plaguing the appointment system and on changing a culture at the VA that is not accountable.

"I will use all the authority at my disposal to hold people accountable," Gibson said. He added that the problems reported at different VA sites are under investigation and willful misconduct or negligence will not be tolerated.

O'Rourke said that during their meeting he asked Gibson about why there have been no sanctions against VA employees who said El Paso's VA wait times were much shorter than they actually were.

"Who's accountable for El Paso to be a poor performer? In football if your team finishes last in the league, you get rid of the coach," O'Rourke said.

The congressman said Gibson told him the VA has a process that cannot be rushed.

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