- Associated Press - Monday, November 24, 2014

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - The deputy secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs says the wait for veterans to get health care is still too long at the Central Alabama Veterans system but that some improvements have been made after a leadership shake-up.

“Fundamentally, wait times are still too long,” Deputy Veterans Affairs Secretary Sloan Gibson said Monday.

A federal appeals board last week upheld the firing of the director of the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System for neglect of duty, including not taking action against an employee who investigators said drove a substance abuse patient to a crack house to get drugs.

Gibson toured the hospitals on Monday. It was part of a series of visits across the country in the aftermath of reports of long wait times that resulted in some veterans dying while awaiting care.

Gibson said a key statistic is how many patients are waiting 30 days longer than when they wanted or clinically needed an appointment. Nearly 10 percent of patients at Central Alabama are beyond that 30-day timeframe, he said.

“That’s too high,” Gibson said.

He said the system is hiring additional doctors. Additional appointment slots have been created and training is planned for staff. Better scheduling procedures are also being put in place to help reduce wait times.

Gibson said more personnel actions are pending at the system. He did not elaborate, other than to say they weren’t senior management.

The Department of Veterans Affairs terminated James Talton in late October. He was the first VA official fired under a law approved by Congress and the president this summer. The law expedites the dismissal process for VA senior executives in response to the agency’s staff falsifying patient scheduling data to cover up extremely long waits for appointments.

The Central Alabama VA operates major medical facilities in Montgomery and Tuskegee and clinics in Dothan, Fort Rucker and Monroeville, Alabama, and Columbus, Georgia, that serve about 42,000 veterans.

Gibson on Monday met with managers and employees at the Tuskegee and Montgomery facilities. He said one of the positive changes he noticed was that staff reported a more open environment for communication.

He said there are also ongoing investigations into allegations that Central Alabama whistleblowers, who tried to report problems, faced retaliatory action.

Gibson said part of the solution is creating a workplace culture where employees feel encouraged to report past problems and wrongdoing.

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