TEMPLE — The people protesting in front of the Temple Veterans Affairs facility this week fought for the right.
“I appreciate what they were doing because that’s what they fought for, the right to have freedom of speech,” said Sallie Houser-Hanfelder, director of the Central Texas Veterans Healthcare System. “They want to make sure that we’re giving the best possible care and obviously we’re failing some of them.”
Opening up lines of communication between the VA and its employees and its clients is at the forefront.
She said a program titled “Speak to the Directors” receives about 350 messages each week from employees, patients and others.
Those comments are forwarded to the area of concern, she said.
“We also get a lot of compliments through that,” Houser-Hanfelder said.
Employees have an electronic forum that can be used to pass along comments anonymously, said Bobby Zimmerman, director of volunteer services.
Improving internal and external communications is an ongoing project and the VA representatives have been visiting veterans’ service organizations.
When Houser-Handfelder arrived in Temple from her previous job in Missouri, there was no way for a veteran in a wheelchair to get to her office. The furniture in the outer office was rearranged.
Complaints should be handled by the VA service in question, she said.
“By the time they get to us, they are ramped up,” Houser-Handfelder said. “They are already mad because they have through five or six different people, being told different things and they are angry, and they have every right to be.”
Customer service has been a big issue and it’s been worked on, she said.
The Central Texas system has eight campuses and includes the Temple VA, the tertiary medical center; Waco VA, another medical center that has long-term care, psychiatry, primary care and a blind rehab unit; the Austin Clinic, which is the largest free-standing outpatient clinic in the country; and community-based outpatient clinics in Brownwood, Palestine, La Grange, Bryan/College Station and Cedar Park.
“I welcome anybody who wants to come in and review any alleged wrongdoing,” she said. “We’ve said that and have been open about that.”
If a criminal investigation is being conducted, the administration doesn’t know what’s being looked at, and there is a strict policy not to question those who have been interviewed.
“The majority of time we don’t know what they are looking at,” Houser-Hanfelder said.
On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, said the FBI will investigate criminal allegations at the Temple VA.
Houser-Hanfelder said she asked Carter, when he first announced his intentions to call for a federal investigation during a meeting with the American Legion, to call for the investigation, but to do it quickly.
Each Central Texas Veterans System site has been surveyed and there were issues that were forwarded to Washington, D.C. Some of those issues were dealt with.
“We don’t know what the inspector general found, but expect to hear at some point,” she said.
In the past few weeks, Houser-Hanfelder has been observing scheduling clerks at the various sites, she said.
“Mind you, I’m not a scheduling clerk, but I have sat down with the frontline staff and I have about three more weeks of those,” Houser-Hanfelder said.
It’s a cumbersome process, based on an old computer platform.
There are plans to replace the system, Houser-Hanfelder said.