Veterans Affairs officials will have a one-day "access stand down" to review lingering problems with health care appointments throughout the department, VA Secretary Bob McDonald said on Friday.
The announcement, made less than a week before Veterans Day, comes as department officials struggle to reconcile reforms implemented over the last 16 months of McDonald's tenure with continued problems surrounding VA operations and public confidence in the agency.
"We owe veterans more, we owe our employees who serve veterans more," McDonald said during a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
The stand down, scheduled for Nov. 14, will include clinic leaders and administrators at every VA medical center across the country reaching out to veterans with significant health problems or past access issues.
VA officials said the goal is to ensure that department medical providers are "meeting their health care needs" and to work through potential patient problems.
Veterans groups and lawmakers have expressed concerns with continued wait time problems at VA hospitals and clinics in the wake of the department's 2014 scandals, where administrators were found to have gamed appointments records to protect their own bonuses.
McDonald insisted there has been improvement. According to VA statistics, 97 percent of all VA health care appointments are scheduled within 30 days. Specialty care wait-time averages six days, mental health appointments are three days.
But he also said that increased access puts additional strain on the department.
"The access crisis was predominantly a matter of a significant mismatch of supply versus demand," he said. "The crisis was exacerbated by greater numbers of veterans receiving services."
Hiring medical staff will continue to be a problem for the department, he said, due to a lack of professionals in the country.
Meanwhile, improving access to health care for veterans outside the VA will depend on Congress acting on department proposals to consolidate community care programs, including the new Choice Card program approved by lawmakers last summer.
"Our most essential partnership is with Congress," he said. "Congress holds the keys to many of these doors. … We literally cannot do it alone, not without the right congressional support."
McDonald's speech touched on other areas of improvement in the department he says have too often been overlooked.
For example, he pointed to efforts to end homelessness among veterans that have continued to drop the number of individuals living on the streets. The backlog of first-time benefits applications has dropped significantly over the last three years, though he acknowledged the benefits appeals process is "too complex, too confusing to veterans, and too lengthy."
And he said morale among VA workers "is slightly better, but not where it needs to be."
McDonald said lawmakers have promised to hold a hearing on reform efforts and success stories in the near future.