President Obama and Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald visit the veterans hospital in Phoenix Friday to announce a new outside advisory committee to help the VA with customer service. A scandal last year at the Phoenix facility led to revelations of long wait times for veterans throughout the VA medical system.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
President Obama visited the VA hospital in Phoenix today. That hospital was at the center of a scandal last year that exposed a systemwide problem. VA officials were faking data about how long veterans had to wait to get medical care. The president and VA Secretary Bob McDonald met with vets and VA employees, as well as Arizona lawmakers. NPR's Quil Lawrence follows veterans' issues, and he joins us now. And, Quil, what's the progress report? Have things changed at that VA hospital in Phoenix?
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Well, the White House and the VA say that it's changed. They say that wait times are much lower. You'll remember that officials in Phoenix had been claiming that they were seeing vets within 14 days of a request for an appointment when in fact vets there were waiting for months and months. And it turned out to be a nationwide problem. Some of these vets' health was really suffering while they waited for appointments. So to shrink the waiting list, the VA says, in the Phoenix area they've funded 30,000 private care appointments so vets could get care outside the VA system.
BLOCK: And, as you mentioned, Quil, this is a nationwide problem, not just in Phoenix but in dozens of VA medical centers across the country - these long wait times. Has there been progress in other places, as well?
LAWRENCE: Again, citing the VA, they say 9 out of 10 vets are now getting care within 30 days. The backlog of new disability claims is way down from its peak a couple years ago. At the same time, these statistics are hard to trust because fake data was at the root of the scandal last year, so - and investigations keep on coming out along the same lines, with new cases of whistleblowers saying they get demoted or suspended if they call out problems. Critics in Congress say there have been no significant firings of VA staff directly because of those fake statistics. Even the former director of the Phoenix VA, Sharon Helman, was let go for unrelated reasons. Congress has tried to make it easier to hire and fire at the VA, but the VA says that laws prevent them from firing federal employees without lengthy due process.
BLOCK: Well, what about the hiring end of things? Wasn't the root of the problem that the VA has a real shortage of primary care doctors to deal with all of the vets who need care, and that's why people had to wait so long?
LAWRENCE: Again, in the Phoenix area, they say they've hired 300 of 800 new hires they need in the next two years. That's probably a good example of the situation nationwide. There's this glut of demand for health care as Baby Boom veterans - Baby Boom generation veterans get older. And at the same time, the VA's reputation is taking a beating, so it can't be easy to recruit doctors and nurses for the VA right now.
BLOCK: OK, and briefly, the new VA Secretary Bob McDonald was brought in to try to restore the reputation of that agency. Is he winning trust back?
LAWRENCE: He's getting good reviews so far from veterans' groups and bipartisan support in Congress. He talks a lot about making it a customer service-based organization. And the White House announced an advisory committee from outside the VA today to do that - to do just that.
BLOCK: OK, NPR's Quil Lawrence, who covers veterans' issues for us. Quil, thanks so much.
LAWRENCE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.