John McCain and Jeff Flake plan to hold a meeting after the president's visit. (Getty Images photo)

(Bloomberg) — The Obama administration plans to convene a panel of advisers to suggest ways the Department of Veterans Affairs can improve customer service after reports last year of deaths, treatment delays and substandard care in veterans’ hospitals.

Details about the panel will be announced later today by President Barack Obama at a round-table discussion at the VA facility in Phoenix, according to a White House statement. The panel also will suggest how to improve patient outcomes.

The Phoenix facility was at the center of criticism over the treatment of veterans after allegations that patients were waiting months for basic medical care. A subsequent investigation by the administration revealed systemic management failures and substandard care across the country.

While in Phoenix, Obama will meet with veterans, VA employees and veterans organizations, and discuss efforts to improve the VA and identify where more needs to be done, according to the statement.

“Everything’s on the table in terms of this discussion,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Thursday.

Mismanagement at the agency forced the resignation of retired Army General Eric Shinseki as VA secretary. Congress subsequently passed a $16.3 billion bill to overhaul the agency. Obama’s failure to visit the Phoenix VA facility in January while in town for an event on his administration’s housing policies drew criticism from veterans’ groups and Republican lawmakers.

Critics news conference

Sen. John McCain, one of those critics, plans to hold a news conference at the facility on today after the president’s visit. He’ll be joined by his fellow Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake.

Shinseki’s replacement, Robert McDonald, has faced struggles of his own. Last month, McDonald apologized after misstating that he had served in the U.S. military special forces. He’s also been criticized for overstating the number of employees fired during an interview with “Meet the Press.”

The program introduced to assist veterans who face long wait times at VA facilities has stumbled, with many patients complaining the program is too restrictive. In a survey released by the Veterans of Foreign Wars earlier this month, 80 percent of those who said they should be eligible for the program said they were not afforded the choice to receive care outside of the VA.

Making progress

Administration officials say they are making progress to improve care and address mismanagement.

“The Department of Veterans Affairs remains committed to providing Veterans with the care that they have earned where they want it and how they want it,” VA spokesman Josh Taylor said in an e-mail.

The VA authorized over 2 million visits to private health-care providers last year, Taylor said. In Phoenix, the VA has hired 305 new full time employees, began constructing new outpatient clinics and an emergency department, and is restructuring its phone systems. The agency reached out to every veteran who had been appeared on an unofficial wait list to coordinate accelerated care.

But Kathryn Mitchell, a doctor who helped expose mismanagement issues at the Phoenix facility, said that while the government has “made some incredible improvements in access to care” that there remain “significant problems” which have not been addressed.

At risk

Mitchell says the VA hasn’t created a standardized triage training program for nurses, putting patients at risk. Because nurses aren’t always experienced enough to evaluate a situation, patients may not be provided the right care in a timely fashion.

Plans for expanding the Phoenix hospital’s emergency department are also “grossly inadequate,” Mitchell said. Blueprints don’t include enough observation rooms for mental-health patients, and the floor plan doesn’t allow nurses enough visibility of patients, she said.

Jeff Miller, the Florida Republican who leads the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said the Obama administration hasn’t taken advantage of the additional authority to dismiss workers and funding provided by Congress last fall.

“It’s time for the administration to step up and use the tools Congress gave it to reform the department into an organization truly worthy of the veterans it is charged with serving,” Miller said in an e-mail statement.

In February, the VA said the inquiry into the conduct of top officials at the facility was interrupted over concerns that one of the investigators had a conflict of interest.

The VA has proposed disciplinary action over mishandling patients for more than 80 employees nationwide, Taylor said.

See also: VA to process oldest disability claims first 

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