More than a year after it became known that veterans were dying while waiting for care, the new head of the Phoenix VA Health Care System told vets Thursday night that she wants to regain their trust and work with them to make improvements.
“We have made progress here at the Phoenix VA, but we have a long way to go,” Deborah Amdur, new Phoenix VA director, said before a packed house of vets at a town hall meeting. “What is important is that you know that as we continue to make changes and improve things, you, the veterans that we serve, really are at the center of those efforts. We want you to be our partners.”
Amdur took over as head of the troubled Phoenix medical center about a month ago. She told veterans that the hospital hasn’t been as responsive as it needs to be “and as all of you deserve.” She also said she wants to create an environment at the Phoenix VA where veterans feel welcome, respected, and encouraged to bring issues forward.
The town hall, held at Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center in Phoenix, lasted about two hours. Staffers were on hand to answer questions from veterans and to address issues related to their care. There also was a clinic set up where veterans could go to file claims.
During the town hall, several veterans voiced communication issues with their primary health providers and expressed concerns over the care they've received from the Phoenix VA hospital.
Dan Crowell was one of the few veterans to express satisfaction with the his VA care.
“They have taken care of my health needs,” said the 74-year-old, diagnosed with an abdominal aneurysm four years ago. “If I had unlimited resources money-wise, I would still be treated here.”
The Phoenix VA hospital has been under fire since mid-2014, when it was revealed that patients were dying as they waited for care. Reports also emerged of employees falsifying records to try to hide long wait times. But this wasn’t just happening in Phoenix; other VA facilities were doing the same.
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Amdur said Thursday night that she wants to make improvements in various key areas, including the time it takes for veterans to get appointments. She noted that last month, more than 73,300 appointments were made in the Phoenix VA. Of those, 84 percent were scheduled within 30 days. She said she’d like to see that improve to at least 95 percent.
“I know that we can get there, but it’s going to take us some time,” she said.
The town hall came on the same day that Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald testified before the Senate VA Committee on how the administration has turned around. He said employees now are held accountable and noted that about 2,400 people have been fired in the last 18 months.
Addressing questions by members of Congress on why more VA employees haven’t been fired, McDonald said: “You can’t fire your way to excellence.”