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VA chief: Agency has lost trust of vets, public

WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs has lost the trust of veterans and the American people as a result of widespread treatment delays for people seeking health care and falsified records to cover up those delays, the agency’s top official said Wednesday.

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said the VA has created an environment where workers are afraid to raise concerns or offer suggestions for fear of retaliation and has failed to hold employees accountable for wrongdoing or negligence.

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The agency also has devoted too many resources to meeting performance metrics — such as prompt scheduling of patient appointments — that were subject to manipulation and may not accurately reflect quality of care, Gibson said.

‘‘As a consequence of all these failures, the trust that is the foundation of all we do — the trust of the veterans we serve and the trust of the American people and their elected representatives — has eroded,’’ Gibson told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

Illustrating the depths of the agency’s woes, the VA’s Office of Inspector General said Wednesday it is investigating possible wrongdoing at 87 VA medical facilities nationwide, up from 69 last month.

Despite its problems, Gibson said the VA can turn itself around ‘‘in as little as two years’’ if given additional resources by Congress. Gibson did not mention a compromise bill being considered by House and Senate negotiators, but the Obama administration has expressed support for a Senate bill approved last month authorizing $35 billion in new spending to build clinics, hire more doctors, and make it easier for veterans who can’t get prompt appointments with VA doctors to get outside care.

Gibson said he supports increased access to outside care for veterans, but added that he believes ‘‘the greatest risk to veterans over the immediate to long term is that additional resources are provided only to support increased purchased care in the community, and not to materially remedy the historic shortfall’’ for VA operations and facilities.

At a minimum, the VA needs $17.6 billion over the next three years to address shortfalls in clinical staff, office space, and information technology, Gibson said.

Gibson took over as acting secretary May 30 after VA Secretary Eric Shinseki was forced to resign amid a growing uproar over treatment delays and other problems at VA hospitals and clinics nationwide, including reports that dozens of patients died while awaiting treatment at the Phoenix VA hospital.

The acting secretary told the Senate panel he is committed to restoring the trust of veterans and the American people through a series of actions, some of which have already begun, including outreach to 160,000 veterans to get them off waiting lists and into clinics.

Gibson also vowed to fix systemic scheduling problems, address cultural issues that have allowed problems at the agency to fester, and hold front-line workers and supervisors accountable for willful misconduct or negligence.

He also promised to improve transparency, including regular and ongoing disclosures of information about patient scheduling and care.

Lawmakers generally welcomed Gibson’s comments, but said the agency has a long way to go to restore trust.

Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent and chairman of the Senate veterans panel, said he has been impressed by the response of Gibson and other VA leaders to the current crisis, but added: ‘‘The simple reality is that the problems they face are staggering.’’

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