Six months after the American Legion led the call for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to step down over systemic problems in patient care at VA medical centers, Executive Director Verna Jones says she has no regrets. “We got it right,” she said. “Because of that change, things are happening.”
Jones sees signs of the department’s upturn in the reduced wait times at VA medical centers and the shrinking backlog of disability claims. The department has begun sending out “choice cards” to veterans who live far away from VA centers. “They were late in sending them out,” Jones said, “But now that they’ve sent them out, we’re hopeful that it’s going to be OK.”
Jones recently met with VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson to discuss the progress. On Capitol Hill, the Legion’s lobbyists are a constant fixture. Congress always returns their calls, she said.
But she fears that in the rush to fix the glaring problems that the Legion has called attention to — long delays for patient care, manipulated schedules, months-long waits for disability payments — the department might make mistakes that hurt veterans.
“We want to make sure they’re timely but accurate,” she said. “You have to find that balance, that comfortable middle where veterans can get their claims awarded timely and they are right the first time.”
She supports new VA Secretary Bob McDonald in his efforts to reorganize the department, as long as it improves veterans’ care. She also credits him for opening a new office focused on employees’ accountability. The department has recommended 40 employees for disciplinary action related to the patient care scandals, although most of those workers have not left the department yet. Jones wants to see punitive measures taken against employees who are at fault. Accountability remains one of the Legion’s top priorities, she said.
Of the three leaders that the Legion demanded step down, one remains: Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey. The Legion still wants her to leave.
“We don’t think veterans are getting what they need under her leadership where benefits are concerned,” Jones said.
She admits the situation is awkward. “We still interact with [Hickey], go to meetings and sit across the table from her,” Jones said. “We’re both professional. It’s not personal.”
Jones, who became the Legion’s executive director earlier this month, is the first woman to hold the position. Another veterans’ group, Disabled American Veterans, recently found gender gaps in nearly all federal services provided to veterans, from health care to job training. Going forward, Jones said, she would look for McDonald to make good on his pledge to provide more services to women veterans.
“It has to happen. More and more women are joining the military, being called to fight for our country and now being able to take official combat roles — because we’ve always been there — the VA and all facets of government will have to step it up,” she said. “We’re here. We’re not going anywhere.”