By Mike Dunn

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — A Philadelphia City Council committee today dipped its toe into the national controversy over care at VA hospitals.

The lawmakers heard promises of improvements from local officials, and tales of bureaucratic bungling from veterans.

Councilman David Oh called the hearing in the wake of the national controversy over healthcare at Veterans Administration hospitals.

In the hot seat were two local VA officials: Philadelphia VA Medical Center director Daniel Hendee (at right in photo) and regional benefits office director Diana Rubens (at left).

The two read prepared statements promising a better level of health care and benefits administration.  Then, Oh asked what is done with VA staffers who are rude to veterans.


(Councilman David Oh.  Image from City of Phila. TV)

(Councilman David Oh. Image from City of Phila. TV)


(Oh:)   “How can this system be improved if there is — and I don’t know if this is true — no way to fire bad employees?”

(Hendee:)  “Employees can and do get fired for just that reason.  Certainly we will not, as a leadership, and certainly I will not, tolerate discourteous and rude and disrespectful behavior to veterans.”

Hendee says the tougher policy on employee behavior is “part of reshaping the culture” of the VA, and he said that policy includes rewarding workers who are consistently courteous.

Rubens said bringing more staff on board is also part of improving responsiveness:

“The opportunity to hire allows us to talk about our underlying philosophy, which is ‘grant (benefits) if you can, deny only if you must.’   So our employees are all looking to find out how they can best provide those benefits to those who’ve earned them,” she said.

But the City Council panel (the “Global Opportunities and Creative/Innovative Economy Committee”) also heard from veterans and representatives of veterans groups who painted pictures of difficult battles for health care reimbursement and benefits approval.

Among them was Chris Diaz, a six-year Navy veteran and head of the Drexel University Veterans Association.  He told councilmembers that a VA error held up the agency’s payment for his VA-approved knee surgery.

“Because of this clerical error, I was harassed by collection agencies with phones calls and letters for eight months,” he said, adding that his case is one of many such snafus by the VA.

“Too often, veterans are suffering because of excessive delays to care,” he said.  “Student veterans have issues receiving their education benefits.  An Air Force veteran I spoke to went his entire first year of medical school waiting for the VA to process his GI Bill benefits.”

Philadelphia is home to an estimated 88,000 military veterans.  City Council has no formal jurisdiction over veterans affairs.