PHOENIX -- Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald visited a VA hospital Friday for the first time since taking over the embattled agency last month, meeting with veterans and health care providers and vowing to restore trust in the organization.
Reports that dozens of people died while waiting to see a doctor and that employees covered up long wait times at the Phoenix VA helped touch off a national firestorm over veteran care. The former VA secretary was forced to resign, and President Barack Obama on Thursday signed $16.3 billion law to overhaul the department.
McDonald said his visit to the Phoenix hospital was the first of what would be many across the country in the next few months.
"I've been on the job about a week or so, and I'm more encouraged than I've been before," the former Procter and Gamble CEO said. "This is doable."
McDonald said that he is focusing on problems with veterans scheduling doctor's appointments, one of the major complaints at the hospital. He said that the VA is going to investigate the problem nationwide.
"Every VA medical center will undergo an independent review of scheduling and access practices beginning in September," said McDonald. "This review will be conducted by the Joint Commission, the nation's oldest and longest standard setting and accrediting body in health care."
All VA medical center directors nationwide will be able to notify the Undersecretary of Health if quality standards at their hospitals are not met.
McDonald said that progress has already been made in improving appointment scheduling in Phoenix.
"They've reached everyone who was identified by the Inspector General's report, on their electronic wait list or on the new enrollee appointment request list, who are looking for primary care appointments," he explained. "Those appointments have all been scheduled."
More than 3,000 appointments for veterans have been scheduled in Phoenix since May 15.
McDonald is determined to turn the situation around at the nation's VA medical centers.
"We're going to take this crisis, this challenging moment in time, and turn it into an opportunity to transform Veterans Affairs into the most effective health care system in the world," he said.
McDonald, a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger, held up a button that employees will wear with the acronym "ICARE," which stands for integrity, commitment, advocacy and respect. McDonald said it represents the VA's effort to return to its original mission of caring for men and women who fought for the country.
"We're going to look at everything we do from the lens of the veterans," McDonald said. "Not from the lens of Veterans Affairs."
As part of that effort, McDonald said he will ensure that "employees who have violated the trust of veterans or the department are held accountable."
McDonald added that the Phoenix VA hospital has also opened temporary mobile medical units from other states and planned to open a new clinic to help with demand. KTAR's Bob McClay contributed to this report.