WASHINGTON -- The top official of the Department of Veterans Affairs says the agency 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.
Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson says the agency 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.
Gibson told a Senate committee Wednesday he is committed to restoring the trust of veterans and the American people.
"We understand the seriousness of the problems we face. We own them," Gibson said in his testimony. "We're taking decisive action to begin to resolve them. We must, all of us, seize this opportunity. I believe that in as little as two years, the conversation can change."
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.
Since taking charge of the VA, Gibson said he has worked to expand private health care for veterans who need access, begun the process of holding people responsible for falsifying records, held meetings with stakeholder groups, and signaled to all VA employees that the agency "will not retaliate against whistle blowers."
Both committee chair Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and ranking member Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said the VA had taken necessary steps toward better practices. But both expressed concern that more was needed and said their committee would be essential in monitoring the VA's actions.
"[There has been] horrendous damage to the VA's reputation," Burr said. "Much more will have to be done to repair that damage. This committee has a lot of work to do."
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Sanders asked for "straight, honest talk" from Gibson about the specific needs of the VA.
Gibson said that the VA has been working with the Office of Management of Budget to form a funding request, which he said was "large" but in reality only a "moderate percentage increase" in the agency's annual budget. He added that a large portion of the funding request will be one-time requests in information technology upgrades.
The latest analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates a Senate-passed bill would cost $35 billion through 2016 to build new clinics, hire doctors and make it easier for veterans who can't get prompt appointments with VA doctors to get outside care. The CBO put the price tag of a similar measure passed by the House at $44 billion.
Sanders, though, has said that he believes strong legislation can be made at a lower cost than those estimates.
More than 8 million of the nation's 21 million veterans are now enrolled in VA health care.