FAYETTEVILLE: Acting secretary defends VA at visit - Local news, weather, sports Savannah | WSAV On Your Side

Emotional VA secretary says calls to fire people are 'crap'

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FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. -

The new head of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs visited the VA medical center in Fayetteville Thursday, and acknowledged his department has systemic problems that must be addressed.

But acting VA secretary Sloan Gibson also defended the efforts of the VA, which faced a withering audit earlier this week.

"This idea of, 'Let's fire everybody and pull everybody's bonuses away,' that's a bunch of crap," he said.

"Have we got problems? Yes we do," he said. "And my commitment is we're going to deal with those problems. But I'm not going to let people sit there and say we have 350,000 people who aren’t worth a crap."

Gibson met Thursday with the leadership and employees of the Fayetteville VA Medical Center and later addressed the media.

Gibson recounted changes the agency is making to address the issue as he defended VA employees, who he described as working harder for less pay than similarly qualified professionals in the private sector.

The Fayetteville VA, in a statement late Tuesday, said a big problem was lack of space for a facility with increasing demands, and Gibson reiterated that Thursday.

"The biggest constraint in Fayetteville is space," he said.

Gibson announced he is adding $7.4 million to the Fayetteville VA's budget for extended hours, possibly leasing space and to pay for more contracted health care.

Gibson's visit comes days after the VA this week released the results on an internal audit showing that patients at the Fayetteville medical center wait an average of 29 days for a primary care appointment. The audit shows the Durham and Fayetteville VA's have some of the worst wait times in the country, with new patients wait 83 days.

The Durham VA didn't agree with the national audit. In a press release, a Durham VA spokesperson said they couldn't verify the audit results that showed average new patient with mental health wait times of 104 days. Sec Gibson said the numbers were in fact correct.

"The data that was sent out was accurate. And they should know by now that they don’t issue press releases that create a situation of dueling databases” Gibson said.

Many veterans interviewed by WNCN Thursday want action.

Retired Marine Edward Kirby, diagnosed with throat cancer, said it "took me a year. It goes further than you want to know and it’s ridiculous -- we don't deserve this."

And Renee Elder, a 17-year retired combat veteran, said she waited more than a year for an appointment.

"I served my nation and my country proudly and I think the VA should be doing more for us," she said.

Gibson became VA head last month after Eric Shinseki resigned following allegations that veterans died while waiting for care at a Phoenix VA Medical Center.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Copyright 2014 WNCN. All rights reserved.

Jonathan Rodriguez

Jonathan Rodriguez is an investigative reporter and member of the WNCN Investigates team. His storytelling specialty is connecting the dots to get to the truth, with a goal of delivering results for our community. If you have something you’d like WNCN to investigate, contact Jonathan.

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