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Long wait times for health care still dogging troubled Veterans Affairs department

When Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald compared the exceptionally-long wait times veterans still endure to get health care to lines at Disneyland, a national firestorm erupted. House Speaker Paul Ryan said his words reflected a “culture of indifference” and McDonald apologized, but two years after the first VA scandal, wait times are still a major problem. Hari Sreenivasan reports.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The Department of Veterans Affairs is back in the crosshairs with its secretary, Robert McDonald, making some controversial comments.

    We had planned to interview the secretary today, but his office called last night to say his schedule was now full. We hope to have an interview with him in the near future.

    But we take a look now at the recent controversy and the persistent problems of delivering vets proper care.

    Last night, the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs posted the closest thing to an apology: "If my comments Monday led any veterans to believe that I or the dedicated work force I am privileged to lead don't take that noble mission seriously, I deeply regret that. Nothing could be further from the truth."

    The comments Secretary Bob McDonald is referring to came Monday morning at a breakfast with reporters, where he downplayed the importance of measuring wait times for medical appointments.

  • ROBERT MCDONALD, Veterans Affairs Secretary:

    What really counts is, how does the veteran feel about their encounter with the VA? When you go to Disney, do they measure the number of hours you wait in line or the number — you know, what is important? What's important is, what is your satisfaction with the experience?

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Reaction was swift. A visibly-angry speaker of the House, Paul Ryan:

    REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), Speaker of the House: When the VA's secretary compared the lines at his agency to lines at an amusement park, we were dumbfounded. This is not make-believe; this is not Disneyland, or Wonderland, for that matter. Veterans have died waiting in line for their care.

    Clearly, the secretary's comments were not worthy of the veterans that he serves. But they're also indicative of a culture of indifference at the VA.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers:

    REP. CATHY MCMORRIS RODGERS (R), Washington: When you go to Disneyland, you aren't wondering if you are going to live long enough to make it to Space Mountain. Clearly, the VA is not the happiest place on earth, and veterans have died waiting in these lines; 18 percent of appointment cancellations go unfilled. We can do better.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    However, veterans groups who have been vocal about problems at the VA offered a more nuanced reaction.

    THOMAS PORTER, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America: His statements were certainly poorly wondered. I don't think they were they were meant to do any harm to veterans, certainly. I think that he's got a big job to do, and we need him to stick in that job and keep moving forward with his department to serve veterans better.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Thomas Porter served in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf and is the legislative director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

  • THOMAS PORTER:

    He's certainly changed the way that the VA is looking at the problem. He's been very transparent. He's been open with the VSOs, the veterans service organizations. And he's making a genuine effort to address the problem.

    We understand that the wait lines have been reduced dramatically since this scandal first started coming to light. We want to keep the VA going in that direction.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Wait times for vets to see a doctor is a sensitive, and explosive, issue. The delays and a cover-up cost the last VA secretary, retired Army General Eric Shinseki, the job in 2014.

    After a VA doctor blew the whistle at a Phoenix facility, an inspector general investigation found that Phoenix-area veterans seeking care had to wait an average of 115 days, almost four months, for a first appointment; 1,700 veterans were kept off any official waiting list, and were at risk of being lost or forgotten.

    Other investigations found this type of problem existed at many VA hospitals throughout the U.S. More recently, the Government Accountability Office reported that the VA's system for tracking how long veterans have to wait for an appointment was flawed, making it hard to identify and remedy scheduling problems.

    The VA's network of hospitals and clinics is one of the largest health care systems in the U.S., with hundreds of thousands of veterans in need of care.

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