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VA orders facility directors to regularly review scheduling

| Wednesday, June 18, 2014, 11:03 p.m.
Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson was an Army Ranger before earning master’s degrees in economics and public administration.

The directors at Pittsburgh and other Department of Veterans Affairs medical facilities will have to personally review their scheduling procedures at least once every 30 days, according to a directive handed down on Wednesday by Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson.

Gibson, who took over the agency after Eric Shinseki's resignation May 30, is trying to steer the embattled VA through a nationwide scandal over secret wait lists for veterans seeking care and charges that the bureaucracy shields its leaders rather than holds them accountable.

“Our top priority is getting veterans off of wait lists and into clinics,” Gibson said in a statement.

The announcement says directors will have to talk in person with schedulers to ensure they're following VA policy. The announcement doesn't mention talking to veterans in person about scheduling performance.

VA public affairs spokeswoman Ramona Joyce issued an email response that didn't directly answer a Tribune-Review inquiry about the announcement's omission of talking with veterans. Gibson “has been clear about his view that veterans, veteran service organizations and all stakeholders play an important role in making the department better,” she said.

Dr. David Macpherson, interim VA Pittsburgh director, will meet with veterans in addition to schedulers to talk about wait times, VA Pittsburgh spokesman Mark Ray said.

VA leaders met with vendors on Wednesday as they prepare to take bids on a new scheduling system. Last week, the House and Senate passed bills to make it easier for veterans to get VA-paid care in private hospitals if they can't get an appointment quickly, or if they live more than 40 miles from a VA hospital.

The House bill would cost about $44 billion over five years, compared to $35 billion over 10 years for the Senate bill, according to preliminary estimates by the Congressional Budget Office.

The Government Accountability Office noted that it's “not possible” to know how long veterans wait for private-sector care because the VA doesn't track wait times outside of its system.

More than 630 veterans waited longer than a year on a secret list at the VA Pittsburgh, the agency acknowledged. On Friday, Gibson suspended with pay VA Pittsburgh director Terry Gerigk Wolf.

VA leaders said they suspended her not because of the wait list, but because of a Legionnaires' disease outbreak at the VA Pittsburgh during which at least six veterans died and 16 others were sickened between February 2011 to November 2012.

An internal VA investigation found schedulers across the country manipulated wait times to make it appear as though hospitals met the agency's two-week wait time goal for appointments.

“Veterans must trust their health care system and these reviews are an important step toward restoring integrity in all our scheduling activities,” Gibson said.

Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

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