Wait times for veterans seeking care at VA hospitals and clinics in the Puget Sound region are falling, according to the department's second-highest-ranking official.

Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson was in Seattle Thursday to meet with staff to learn efforts already underway to improve the delivery of care to veterans. His visit came on the day that President Obama signed a $16 billion law aimed at addressing scheduling backlogs and other problems at VA centers across the country.

[Watch Gibson's extended remarks to media.]

Gibson said $9.5 million in extra funds for the VA's Puget Sound system helped clear a scheduling backlog over that past few months. That money, used to hire additional medical staff so more patients could be seen faster, paid off with dramatic reductions in two waiting lists.

The first, the New Employee Appointment Request List, peaked at 900 veterans several months ago, but is down to just two people today, Gibson said. The other, the elctronic waiting list, saw the number of veterans on it fall from 1,300 to just 83, with the bulk of those remaining on it waiting for a spot in the VA's home-based primary care program.

He also said every VA center in the country will hold a town hall meeting before September 30 to hear directly from veterans and community groups. No date has been set yet for the Puget Sound meeting, but Gibson said it would be advertised well in advance to give as many veterans as possible the chance to attend.

The VA Puget Sound system found to have long waiting times in data released earlier this summer by the government. A survey of VA employees released last week found that half of those questioned said they had been instructed to manipulate scheduling data to make wait times look better than they actually are. And Veterans groups continue to complain that there are not enough specialist medical staff to treat the current patient population, and

Solving the schedule backlog nationwide remains the VA's top priority, Gibson said.

It's the trust of the veterans we serve, but it's also the trust of the American people and their elected representatives, he said. It goes without saying we have seen a lot of that foundation of trust erode over the last number of months. And we understand, I understand, we're going to have to earn that back. Nobody expects it to be given back. We expect that we're going to have to earn it back.

Gibson said VA Puget Sound staff told him their biggest frustrations involve the lack of enough trained staff and the problems they face with the government's contracting system. He said he is helping VA centers around the country deal with these problems by encouraging them to use the authority they already have to skirt some rules and expedite hiring decisions. A cultural change he said is needed throughout the agency, he said, where managers and staff communicate freely about challenges and problem-solve creatively.

The huge majority of rank-and-file within this organization -- they know we need to change. They know even better than I do that we've got to change, and they want to change, so we're back to seizing the opportunity, Gibson said.

Gibson ticked off a number of other priorities, including the protection of whistleblowers who come forward from within VA ranks to report problems. He said a new electronic scheduling system is in the works to replace the current one, which he said is extraordinarily complicated.

Referring to the law signed by President Obama, Gibson said: We're in the midst of a crisis here. 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 that we deliver to veterans perhaps in our history.

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