U.S. leaders and top government officials offered military service members a mix of gratitude, apologies and promises of reform this Veterans Day, as the Department of Veterans Affairs attempts to rebuild after a major scandal over long wait times for health care.
“You are not only the heart and soul, but the very spine of this nation,” said Vice President Joe Biden, who spoke Tuesday at Arlington National Cemetery on behalf of President Obama, who is on a diplomatic mission in China.
In his remarks, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam veteran who spoke in front of that war’s memorial, spoke of the public’s responsibility to the men and women who serve in the armed forces.
“The Wall reminds us to honor those who defend our country,” Hagel said, “from making sure they’re treated with the dignity, respect, and appreciation they deserve, to caring for those who return home with visible – and invisible – wounds of war. Regardless of when or where or what war they served in, taking care of our people is a sacred responsibility that we must always honor.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs is still struggling to address problems laid bare in April, when a whistleblower reported that veterans were not receiving timely care, and that many were being shunted out of the official scheduling system onto secret waiting lists. Some 40 veterans died while waiting for care through the Phoenix VA health care system.
VA Secretary Robert McDonald, who took control of the agency in July after the resignation of former VA chief Eric Shinseki, announced on Monday more plans to deal with the department’s bloated, often labyrinthine bureaucracy.
McDonald’s proposal includes the creation of a customer service organization to help the department be more responsive to veterans’ concerns. This new part of the department, as well as reforms aimed at simplifying VA systems across the country, are all part of McDonald’s plan, presented in September, called “The Road to Veterans Day.”“VA is going to become an even better place to get their medical care, to get their benefits, to take care of memorial services,” McDonald told msnbc’s Andrea Mitchell on Tuesday.
Congress also passed legislation this year that will provide funding to build new health care facilities and hire doctors, nurses and other health care workers to address shortages in the VA health care system.
McDonald has said that the department has proposed disciplinary action against more than 40 VA employees, and there are more than 100 ongoing investigations into alleged misconduct in Phoenix and around the country. Some 1,000 VA employees could face disciplinary action. McDonald also promised that potential whistleblowers will be better protected than some that have come forward.
“I want the criticism from whistleblowers,” McDonald said.