Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson visited the sprawling medical center in Fayetteville, which has some of the country's worst average waiting times for veterans seeking primary care treatment.
Gibson became the head of the VA after Eric Shinseki resigned May 30 following allegations that employees had falsified data to hide excessive wait times. An audit found that 18 veterans had died while waiting for care at a Phoenix VA Medical Center.
"As has become painfully obvious, we have systemic issues around scheduling," Gibson said. "We also have instances where very serious allegations of improper behavior, breaches of integrity (and) violations of our core values that we have to deal with across our organization. ... That willful misconduct will not be tolerated, and I will use whatever authority I have at my disposal to hold people accountable."
Gibson recounted changes the agency is making to address the issues, including removing criteria from performance evaluations in which employees were rewarded based on reported wait times. That led some employees to game the system, he said, getting raises and bonuses by falsifying data.
Three senior officials at the Phoenix center have been placed on administrative leave while an investigation into their conduct continues. Others also face disciplinary actions, including two placed on leave at the VA medical center in Durham.
However, Gibson bristled when a reporter asked if the agency should claw back millions in employee bonuses and spend the money instead directly on patient care.
Gibson, who has been at the VA only four months, described the agency's employees as typically working harder for less pay than similarly qualified medical professionals in the private sector. He said retention and recruitment bonuses are essential to helping the VA find and keep top quality people.
"This idea that 'Let's fire everybody, let's pull everybody's bonus away,' that's a bunch of crap," Gibson said, growing visibly agitated. "Have we got problems? Yes we do. And I own them. From the moment I lowered my right hand taking the oath, I own those problems. And my commitment is that we're going to deal with those problems. But I'm not going to see people sit there and say that we've got 350,000 people that aren't worth a crap. It's wrong. So, no, the money is not better spent by pulling it and putting it somewhere else."
The VA is the country's largest health care provider, serving almost 9 million veterans.
A nationwide report released Monday by the VA said more than 57,000 new patients have been waiting at least 90 days for their initial appointments, a total that represents about 90 percent of all new patients. Nearly 64,000 other patients already enrolled in the system for a decade had not been seen.
In Fayetteville, new patients wait 83 days to be seen. Gibson said his staff was working within the agency's existing budget to shift resources where they are needed, including $7.4 million in additional funding to Fayetteville to extend clinic hours and accelerate care.
Gibson said he recognizes that it will take time for the agency to regain the faith of veterans, elected officials and the American people.
"Everything that we do here is based on a foundation of trust," Gibson said. "It's obvious we have seen much of that trust erode in recent months. My commitment is that we're going to earn it back."