Deputy Veterans Affairs Secretary Sloan Gibson met with about 250 staff members from the VA Thursday to discuss how veterans’ experiences with the VA could be improved and to hear staff concerns about the VA’s Puget Sound Health Care System.

Gibson is touring VA hospitals across the country to hear about obstacles veterans and employees face in getting or providing timely, quality health care.

Gibson’s visit came the same day President Obama signed a $15 billion VA overhaul bill that will allow veterans to seek private health care outside VA facilities, provide money to expand VA facilities and hire more personnel.

The bill has been reported as providing $16.3 billion to the VA, but Gibson told reporters that the amount appropriated was $15 billion. An additional $1.3 billion was authorized, but not appropriated, he said.

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The Veterans Health Administration plans to ensure that $9.5 million from its budget be made available to the VA Puget Sound to accelerate access to care for veterans in this area, Gibson said during his visit to the VA Medical Center in Seattle. VA Puget Sound treats about 93,000 veterans a year.

This decision to increase VA funding across the nation came after evidence from whistle-blowers and an internal review revealed VA employees had manipulated data to hide how long veterans waited to see doctors and showed that some ill veterans had waited months to get care.

Thirty-three percent of Seattle and Lakewood VA hospital schedulers surveyed said they were instructed to change how long military veterans waited for appointments, according to a report this week in The News Tribune of Tacoma. This compares to the national average of 13 percent of VA schedulers who said they were told to manipulate data when surveyed for a national audit report.

When reporters at a news briefing asked Gibson about the higher Puget Sound-area number, he said he didn’t have the specifics, but if employees were intentionally tampering with scheduling there will be “accountability.”

After Gibson’s meeting — with congressional staffers, medical leadership, veterans and Veterans Services officers — he said the VA has to “work in delivering quicker answers to our veterans, have to deal with better accuracy, and we have to be able to report those results with impeachable integrity.”

“Trust is the foundation of everything we do. We have seen a lot of that foundation of trust erode over the last couple of months, and we understand we are going to have to earn that back,” Gibson said.

Problems, such as long wait times, employees falsifying data to cover up problems and the overall culture of the VA can change quickly, Gibson believes.

“I think its obvious to everybody we are in the midst of crisis,” Gibson said. “What is not necessarily as obvious to everyone is that we are also faced with what is likely the greatest opportunity that this department has had to improve the care we deliver to veterans perhaps in our history.”

However, he said, it requires the department to seize this opportunity in a relatively short period of time. Gibson said there were three major concerns brought up at the meeting: space; staffing and wages that aren’t competitive with other health-care facilities.

Most VA facilities are more than 60 years old, he said, and underfunded.

VA facilities are understaffed, employees told Gibson, and hiring new employees takes too long, a problem made worse by wages that aren’t competitive — not for doctors or support staff.

Cyril Miller, an Army veteran who has received care from the VA Puget Sound Health Care System for more than 20 years, said he doesn’t know whether the new VA bill is enough to fix problems at the facility.

Miller, who is with Veterans and Friends of Puget Sound, an organization that helps veterans navigate the VA system, said the extreme shortage of personnel has compromised the quality of care.

“The hospital belongs to the veterans,” Miller said. “We shouldn’t have to be begging on our hands and knees.”

Zahra Farah: 206-464-3195 or