VA Sees Town Halls as Step to Restoring Trust

Three years after his medical discharge, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force walked up to the microphone to ask a simple question of the Veterans Affairs administrators at a town hall meeting on the West Los Angeles campus Monday.

"I want to know, actually, how you plan on getting our trust back?"

It is a challenge recognized by the new Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Robert McDonald, in directing all of the nation's VA centers to conduct town halls to explore their concerns.

McDonald took the helm of a veterans administration that has been battered by adverse court rulings and critical reports from Congress, the General Accountability Office, and its own Inspector General.  The issues run the gamut from from delays in receiving medical care to falsified recordkeeping, from the questionable leasing of VA property to the ongoing plight of homeless veterans.

McDonald did not make it to the West LA town hall Monday, but Saturday he did visit a VA facility in Cincinnati, Ohio, and acknowledge the struggle ahead.

"We know that trust has been compromised, and we need to work hard to earn that trust back," McDonald said. The former chairman of Proctor and Gamble was chosen to succeed Eric Shinseki, who resigned amid mounting criticism last May.

In recent years, VA caseloads have risen, and in many cases so have wait times for care. Revelations that documents had been altered at the Phoenix VA, apparently to hide extended waiting periods, attracted national attention.

Those who rose to speak in West LA also raised concern about land use issues, access to housing for the homeless and mental health care.

"What I'm saying to you is that access to care with the VA and the services in your programs is not working," said a woman, who identified herself as the mother of an Iraq war veteran.  She said her son has struggled nine years to obtain the mental health care he needs, and is danger of losing the home where he lives with his wife and children.

Among those listening to the accounts of disappointment and frustration was Dr. Dean Norman, chief of staff from VA West Los Angeles Healthcare.

The revelations of the past year have jolted the VA with "garantuan wake-up call," Norman said after the town hall.  "I think the culture change has to be that we're more  responsive to veterams now and not promise things down the line."

Another issue brought up by several speakers was the controversial issue of leasing portions of the VA property to other public, and in some cases, private entities for uses not directly related to the healthcare of veterans.  The VA campus is home to oil production, a laundry service for a major hotel chain, and a baseball stadium used by UCLA.

One speaker noted that after a broken water main flooded underground parking lots at UCLA, the damaged vehicles were stored on VA property.

Earlier this month, a General Accountability Office study faulted the VA for underbilling those uses. Last year, a federal district judge found that several of the leases were not legal because they did not directly benefit veterans. 

"We never have been able to find out where the money went, or how much money there even is," said John Rowan, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America, a plaintiff in the lawsuit.  Rowan is based in New York, but traveled to West LA to be present for the town hall.  He said he intends to write Secretary McDonald asking for followup reports on all the town hall issues that were raised.

Even from the other side of the country, Rowan has been following the issue of the veterans housing built on the VA campus by the state of California.  Four years after it opened, more than half of its 396 units remain empty, in large part due to the lack of  an adequate kitchen for meal preparation.

"That's just absurd," Rowan said, shaking his head.

The VA has exanded a rental voucher program supported by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.  In fact, even as the town hall was taking place, 12 miles away, a number of homeless veterans were moving into 75 "single room occupancies" made available specifically to veterans at the Rosslyn Hotel downtown.

President Obama has set a goal of ending homelessness of veterans by 2016. It was reduced 38 percent between 2011 and 2013, according to Michelle Wildy, the acting chief of community care for the VA in Greater LA.  However, it's estimated 6,000 to to 7,000 veterans in the area remain homeless.

Still, many who spoke at the town hall made a point to praise one aspect of the West LA VA: the medical care they receive.

"I have the best doctors in the world," said Avery Delton, who counts 151 jumps made while serving in the 82nd airborne.  Now he is being treated for cancer.

Delton expressed confidence the VA administrators can fix the agency.  

"They can," Delton declared, before adding:  "They have to have accountability, also."

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