Veterans Affairs says agency is changing troubled culture

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The Department of Veterans Affairs is making significant progress in its efforts to change a culture that has been beset by complaints from veterans and low employee morale, the leader of the agency said Thursday.

Robert Wilkie, secretary of Veterans Affairs, made his comments after touring the Kansas City VA Medical Center, which has been the target of complaints, lawsuits and protests alleging that minority employees have faced discrimination and harassment for years.

Wilkie said the agency has improved its culture across the country after years of complaints about inadequate care for veterans and that improvements in Kansas City have occurred since David Isaacks was brought in to be medical center director in September 2019.

He praised Isaacks for bringing employees together through a new diversity inclusion council and by promising their complaints will be heard and administrators will be held accountable for problems.

“We are emphasizing accountability, we are emphasizing listening to those who work for us and that is part of a culture change that has seen a transformation across the VA in the last three years,” said Wilkie, who added surveys show employees and patient satisfaction has increased in Kansas City and across the country.

Wilkie’s optimistic assessment comes as U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, and several civil rights organizations demanded changes at the Kansas City hospital.

Moran, who in March sought 10 years of information from the hospital and a plan to address the problems, said in a statement Thursday that he appreciated the time Wilkie had spent addressing the ongoing complaints. He said he plans a roundtable discussion with minority veterans and employees on July 22 to encourage more discussion on the topic.

Black employees at the hospital have complained for years of a hostile work environment and the allegations have drawn new attention since March, when several employees met with the NAACP to discuss their concerns. At least two lawsuits have been filed and more are expected.

In the lawsuits and several internal hospital complaints, Black employees said they were the targets of pervasive discrimination, such as hearing frequent racial epithets, being denied promotions that were awarded to lesser-qualified white employees, being monitored more closely than white employees and receiving no support when they complained.

On Wednesday, leaders of several community organizations tried to present a letter of demands to address racial discrimination to Veterans Affairs leadership but were told Isaacks was not available. The organizers of the news conference and a reporter and photographer were asked to leave the hospital, The Kansas City Star reported.

The Rev. Rodney Williams, president of the Kansas City chapter of the NAACP, said the number of discrimination claims his office has received is “disturbing” and “alarming.” He planned to try and set up a meeting with Isaacks.

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