- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 11, 2015

PHOENIX (AP) - The new director of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Phoenix health system said Wednesday that 10,000 veterans have been signed up for a program that allows them to see private doctors but only 500 have made appointments so far.

Glen Grippen told an Arizona Senate committee that the VA needs to work harder to ensure veterans on waiting lists or in outlying areas know about their options. “It’s new. We’re trying to figure out how to make it better,” he said of the program, part of a 2014 overhaul passed by Congress.

Grippen also told the panel that the Phoenix VA has hired 320 new staff since January 2014, is opening three new Phoenix-area clinics and is preparing to completely remodel its main Phoenix hospital.

But he acknowledged that more needs to be done.

“Even though we have some nice numbers to share, we still have the lowest market penetration in our network,” Grippen said. “We see less veterans in our area than Tucson sees in their catchment area, less veterans than Prescott.”

The Phoenix hospital was at the center of a national scandal about wait times and other problems that led to a system-wide shake-up last year. His testimony comes two days before President Barack Obama is set to visit the Phoenix VA hospital. Obama faced criticism when he failed to stop by the VA hospital during a visit to Phoenix in early January to deliver a speech on the housing market recovery. His motorcade drove right by the facility.

Grippen was questioned by members of the Senate public safety, military and technology committee about how he’s dealing with whistleblowers who brought the problems at the Phoenix VA to light. He declined to speak about specific cases, but he said he wants employees to bring problems to light.

“I respect the law for whistleblowers - I certainly encourage all employees to speak out,” Grippen said. “The only way we can get better is by listening to our veterans, our staff, and being dedicated in making those improvements.”

Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, asked Grippen to tell Obama that more improvements need to be made. He also called the problems at the VA an egregious issue that he hopes is being resolved.

“Vets take up less than 1 percent of our population and yet the facility, the care that we put together to treat them, where it should be the gold standard of care … is anything but in many circumstances and certainly was the case before you came on,” Smith said.

Grippen, who was called out of retirement to oversee the Phoenix system in November, is serving a one-year appointment. He retired in 2011 as director of the VA’s Rocky Mountain regional network after nearly 40 years of service.

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