The Veterans Affairs Department announced a bureaucratic reshuffling Monday that Secretary Robert McDonald said will make it easier for veterans to get the care they need, but veterans advocates are still waiting for the mass firings they think the troubled department needs.
Mr. McDonald said his initiative, dubbed “My VA,” will be the biggest change since the Veterans Administration was created more than 80 years ago as an independent agency, and will be focused on making veterans feel like they are more important than the bureaucracy.
The changes were announced on the eve of Veterans Day.
“We want them to think of our department as embracing them, as giving them a warm hug,” Mr. McDonald said on CNN as he announced the changes, which are designed to right a department reeling from accusations that dozens of veterans died while stuck on secret waiting lists for care.
Congress passed legislation over the summer to push for better treatment of veterans, and President Obama replaced the VA secretary with Mr. McDonald to implement changes.
But Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said a bureaucratic reshuffle isn’t a substitute for firing employees who were responsible for the wait lists, ignored whistleblowers or otherwise put the department’s needs ahead of veterans.
“New plans, initiatives and organizational structures are all well and good, but they will not produce their intended results until VA rids itself of the employees who have shaken veterans’ trust in the system,” Mr. Miller said in a statement.
Mr. Miller said that getting rid of bad actors should be the easiest part of reform, particularly because the new law gives Mr. McDonald firing authority.
Mr. McDonald said he has a list of more than 1,000 people who violated the department’s values and need to be fired. He said, though, that he has to provide employees with due process and can move only as fast as the law allows.
“It’s obviously not in my interest to take a long time in disciplining people,” he said on CNN. “I’m following the law. If a member of Congress wants me to follow a different procedure, they need to pass a different law.”
Mr. McDonald said the series of bureaucratic changes is a result of suggestions made by more than 2,000 VA employees he met during a tour of facilities across the country immediately after taking over as secretary.
He also asked VA employees to send suggestions to an internal department website.
Mr. McDonald’s plan includes a customer service bureau led by a chief customer service officer. He also wants advisory councils to improve veterans’ ability to get treatment from private doctors and clinics.
The secretary also proposed a single regional framework to replace nine maps for health care, benefits, memorial affairs and internal support services, a VA spokeswoman said. The VA is working on how this effort will be implemented, she said in a statement.
Veterans advocates say the changes don’t go far enough.
“People are calling it a shake-up or a massive overhaul. It is neither. It is nipping at the margins of a dysfunctional bureaucracy,” said Pete Hegseth, CEO of Concerned Veterans for America.
He said Mr. McDonald is focusing on bureaucracy while failing to meet key deadlines. The legislation enacted by Congress required the VA to mail out all Choice Cards, which entitle long-waiting veterans and those who live far from VA facilities to seek care from private clinics, within 90 days.
That deadline passed last week, and Mr. McDonald acknowledged that the department had just begun to mail the cards.
“It’s a lot of press releases, it’s a lot of talk and it has not been a lot of action,” Mr. Hegseth said.
Alex Nicholson, legislative director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the secretary’s plan was “light on details” and not the massive overhaul needed, though he acknowledged it was a good first step.
“What we keep stressing we want to see and are waiting on is accountability on the scale one would expect given the scale of the crisis that occurred,” Mr. Nicholson said. “A lot of our members especially every day say they feel like there are so many people who have gotten away with what they did.”
The bureaucratic shuffle is the latest of Mr. McDonald’s efforts to remake his department. He also has pushed to recruit more staff from medical schools across the country and has tried to change the culture at the VA.
The secretary has asked employees to call him Bob. He wears a lapel pin emblazoned with the department’s values and encourages staff to think of veterans as their customers.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent and chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, praised Mr. McDonald for his recruiting efforts and said the secretary has a chance to build on the VA’s strengths.
“Veterans I talk to, and their national organizations, say that once you’re in the system the VA provides very good quality care,” Mr. Sanders said in a statement. “The challenge that Secretary McDonald must address is to make sure that veterans get that care in a timely manner.”