Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Robert McDonald says wait times at VA facilities are down 18 percent since May when allegations of secret wait lists to cover up delays in scheduling appointments caused a nationwide scandal, according to the Associated Press.
Between May and October, the average wait time for new primary care patients fell from 51 days to 42, according to the article. Although the VA is still short of its goal of a 30-day average, McDonald hailed the "significant progress" the drop represents.
This week, as part of legislation to allow veterans to visit a private facility if they live at least 40 miles from a VA facility, the VA sent out "choice cards" to 300,000 veterans allowing them to visit local doctors. The VA plans to send out another 370,000 starting Nov. 17, this time for patients who have waited more than 30 days for an appointment, according to the Washington Post.
Some veterans groups have objected to the phased format of the rollout, according to the Post. "At least this is moving forward," said Ian DePlanque, legislative director for the American Legion. "But I absolutely understand the frustration of people who have been waiting for more than 30 days and find out they're not in first group. It has to be incredibly frustrating for them."
The law also gives McDonald more authority to dismiss underperforming VA executives, a loaded topic after critics accused the VA of improperly influencing an Office of Inspector General report that exonerated the Phoenix facility of directly causing several patient deaths by delaying care.
However, McDonald said his firing authority is not as broad as critics think, according to the Post. While the law allows him to truncate the appeals process for underperforming executives, he told reporters, it does not allow him to unilaterally, immediately fire anyone.
"The law didn't grant any kind of new power that would suddenly give me the ability to walk into a room and simply fire people," he said. "Our Constitution provides for due process, and we are following the due process."