Philly VA hosts town hall meetings, denies likening vets to Oscar the Grouch

     Veteran Thomas Mumbower offered feedback to VA officials at the Philadelphia regional benefits office in Germantown. (Jessica McDonald/WHYY)

    Veteran Thomas Mumbower offered feedback to VA officials at the Philadelphia regional benefits office in Germantown. (Jessica McDonald/WHYY)

    After an investigation earlier this summer found that the Philadelphia VA Medical Center falsified records to make wait times appear shorter, the VA is seeking to rebuild trust with veterans.

     The Philadelphia regional office put together a claims clinic and hosted two town hall meetings to get feedback from veterans to help in that quest. But in an effort to fully prepare staff, published reports say there was a blunder — the “Sesame Street” character Oscar the Grouch was used to represent upset veterans.

    The newly appointed director of the regional office, Diana Rubens, said the potentially offensive training documents were supposed to help employees who might get flustered prepare for the VA’s flurry of outreach efforts.

    “Our intent was definitely not to refer to any veterans as Oscar the Grouch,” she said before beginning Wednesday afternoon’s town hall meeting. Rather, Rubens said the training was designed to “help those folks who don’t interact with veterans every day, not to let our inner Oscar the Grouch come out.”

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    Rubens confirmed that her office put the training materials together from older documents, some of which came from the VA’s intranet. But she was unclear exactly how children’s television character became part of the training guide.

    During the town hall meeting, however, few people were concerned with the issue. 

    Veteran Deborah Pitt was much more interested in finding out why the Philadelphia VA Medical Center staff has not treated her well.

    “They’re just so nasty, so disrespectful,” she said. “It’s like they try to intimidate.”

    Vietnam vet Joseph Dixon praised the medical services, but said he was unhappy having to wait nine months for a physical exam.

    Many complaints stemmed from poor communication and confusion over how to file claims. One man wanted to make sure he got his veterans’ mortgage insurance. Another family was frustrated with the VA’s online system meant to expedite claims, eBenefits.

    Rick Lingle of Diakon Lutheran Social Ministries said he had seen extreme delays in setting up the trusts necessary for helping vets get pension benefits.

    “It’s taking anywhere — if I’m lucky — from three to six months, and once one is established, getting the accrued benefits paid can sometimes be an issue,” he said.

    The town hall meetings at the Germantown office are part of a national effort to restore confidence in the system, and were mandated by new VA Secretary Robert McDonald.

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