Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson visits Fayetteville hospital

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Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson visited Fayetteville Thursday, home to a VA medical center with one of the country's worst waiting times.

Acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Sloan Gibson announced Thursday that the Fayetteville VA Medical Center will receive $7.4 million. The money will be used to combat problems that led the facility to rank one of the worst in the country for wait times.

Gibson's visit with VA leadership comes a week after an internal audit showed the Fayetteville facility ranked third in highest wait times for initial primary care appointments. That wait period averaged 83 days, six times longer than the now-defunct system-wide goal of 14 days.

While the center's director Elizabeth Goolsby didn't speak during the press conference, Gibson addressed Fayetteville-specific problems, noting that space and physician retention are the biggest issues.

In an area with the fastest-growing veteran population in the country, Gibson applauded the medical center's partnerships with Womack Army Medical Center, and said the money will go toward extending clinic hours. He also said he'd sent the word to Washington to expect a monetary request from the Fayetteville VA in order to pay bonuses to physicians and aid in retention.

Gibson said three executives from the Phoenix, Arizona hospital, where the upheaval began after veterans died waiting for care, are being investigated, and may be fired.

"I will tell you that there are a number of other situations that are being examined. Part of the challenge here in the areas where I am most anxious to take action, they are areas where the IG continues to wrap up their investigations."

He explained the investigations as a part of due process, and alluded to the possibilities of more suspensions or firings pending individual facility investigations.

"Willful misconduct will not be tolerated," said Gibson. "And I will use whatever authority I have at my disposal to hold people accountable."

"When he clearly addressed the fact that the Phoenix, Arizona VA director hasn't even been fired? The process has only begun? This is unacceptable," responded Kathleen Volandt, the state director for Concerned Veterans for America. "We must have sweeping change at the VA."

Volandt said the missing piece in Gibson's address was systematic change.

"If we want things to truly change at the VA we must talk policies, procedures, structural needs and changes at the VA," she said, expressing disappointment in Gibson's address.

Tensions rose during the afternoon press conference when a Jacksonville newspaper reporter questioned Gibson on whether VA executive bonus money would be better used by placing a human-being on the other side of a suicide-prevention line.

The Marine veteran was accompanied by his service dog.

"This idea that 'let's fire everybody, let's pull everybody's bonus away'' that's a bunch of crap," Gibson said angrily. "The fact of the matter is we've got 341,000 people and the vast majority of them work really hard to do the right thing, and that's why we've got veterans that are well-served the vast majority of the time."

"Have we got problems? Yes, we do," he continued. "And I've owned them from the moment that I lowered my right hand to taking the oath. I own those problems and my commitment is we're going to deal with those problems. But I'm not going to see people sit there and say that we go 350,000 people that aren't worth a crap. It's wrong. So no-the money's not better spent by pulling it and putting it someplace else."

Following the press conference, Gibson extended a handshake and moved to thank the man for his service.

"Thank you for what? Allowing you to dodge my question?" the man asked, refusing the handshake.

"The fact that he got upset in a press conference with a combat Marine, I take issue with," said Volandt. "And a combat marine in the audience that's a reporter....I think some things need to go back in check."

Another reporter asked Gibson about press release disputes by the Durham VA, that mental health appointment figures were inaccurate in the report dubbing the facility one of the worst in the country for those wait times, with 143 days. Gibson said the data was accurate, and the staff there may be mistaking wait time data by calculating it.

"The good folks in Durham, and they should know by now that they don't issue press releases that create a situation where we've got dueling databases here. What they were legitimately looking at were they were looking at appointments completed.

"And when you look at appointments completed, the data looks better," he continued. "Mental health has a higher no show rate than many of our clinics."

When walk-ins are plugged into no-show slots, Gibson said it makes the data look as if there were no wait times, and that's inaccurate.

"We're going to have a couple of instances where folks are looking and thinking 'well this doesn't look right. I don't understand it.' For whatever reason that's not what they're used to looking at."

Gibson said VA directors are now required to visit every clinic under their jurisdiction in monthly one-on-one settings. He said the next batch of wait times will be released next week, and continue on a regular basis to provide transparency.

Outside the press conference, there was no shortage of veterans expressing frustration with their wait times and care at the Fayetteville VA. Christopher Hubbard, a Marine veteran, said he was told Wednesday it may be August before a primary care physician can see him, and subsequently fill a pain medication he said he desperately needs for a knee injury.

"In all honestly, I think it's nothing more than a dog and pony show," he said of Gibson's visit. "Whether the VA actually takes the concerns of the veterans and our complaints and actually deals with them is another story."
Gibson said trust will be earned by the VA system one veteran at a time.

"We don't expect it to be given. We expect to earn it."

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