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New VA secretary plans more 'purchased care' to relieve backlogs

By Jim Forsyth

SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - The acting secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs said on Friday the agency is putting out bids for "purchased care" that would allow veterans to be treated at other hospitals at the VA's expense while cutting backlogs at its facilities.

"In far too many instances, in far too many locations, we have let our veterans down," Sloan Gibson told reporters after a tour of the sprawling Audie Murphy VA Medical Center in San Antonio. VA hospitals and clinics will be open during non-traditional hours to expand coverage, said Gibson, who was appointed acting secretary of the department on May 30.

U.S. lawmakers engaged in bipartisan talks this week to address delays in the delivery of health care for military veterans. The talks came after former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned in late May amid a scandal over widespread schemes to mask care delays and protect staff bonus awards and salary increases.

"We have lost an awful lot of trust, and we have work to do to earn it back," Gibson said. "With veterans, we will do that one veteran at a time."

Gibson said repeatedly that VA managers and administrators who are found to have engaged in what he called "breaches of integrity" will be held accountable.

U.S. Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who had complained to Gibson about improper management at the Audie Murphy hospital, said he was pleased with Gibson's comments during the visit.

"We need swift action and strong resolve to fix the broken system at the VA," Smith said.

In Phoenix, where cover-up schemes first surfaced, doctors said 40 veterans had died while awaiting care.

"I will personally meet with the families of any veterans who died after failing to get care," Gibson said.

(Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Dan Grebler)