ST. CLOUD - U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald visited the once-embattled St. Cloud Veterans Affairs Medical Center Friday detailing how the VA was striving to decrease wait times by opening up more facilities, hiring more doctors and increasing telemedicine communication systems. 

St. Cloud was one of the facilties where those steps are being taken.

McDonald also visited the Minneapolis VA medical center on Thursday.

In St. Cloud, McDonald met with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, as well as Congressmen Tim Walz and Tom Emmer in addition to VA administrators and staff. He called the meetings “very productive.”

Following the meetings, McDonald together with St. Cloud VA Health Care System director Barry Bahl gave about a half-hour run-through of how their talks with officials and staff went, and answered reporter questions.

McDonald detailed how the VA was striving to decrease wait times and personally rattled off statistics about how this was being done locally in St. Cloud. The facility hired 445 staff members, including 13 doctors, seven physician’s assistants and 49 nurses from April 2014 through January 2016, he said. St. Cloud increased facility space by 45,000 square feet, McDonald said.

In addition to a town hall-style meeting he conducted with “everyone on site” at the St. Cloud VA, McDonald said he met with employee union leaders who until recently were in federal mediation with management.

An internal Veterans Affairs investigation found between 2011 and 2013, more than 24 primary care physicians resigned from the St. Cloud VA, and average caseloads reached 1,800 patients per doctor in July 2013. In terms of employee satisfaction, the hospital ranked near the bottom of all VA facilities nationwide in 2013 and 2014.

The VA’s internal Office of the Medical Inspector examined the St. Cloud VA, McDonald said. Those reports are almost never public, McDonald said, because the Office of the Medical Inspector is internal and publishing the studies would mean “we would never get cooperation” from facilities under scrutiny.

However, the Office of the Inspector General, another VA investigative body, is independent.

“All of their reports should be made public,” McDonald said.

However, there was a backlog of inspector general reports - more than 110 investigations into scheduling practices alone, McDonald said.

“Sometimes the reports don’t get published as quickly as some members of Congress would like,” he said. “But they are being published.”

A 2013 report to the inspector general about the work environment at St. Cloud was kept from the public until a whistleblower leaked it in 2015, a delay that drew the ire of both Walz and Emmer.

Emmer talked about possibly writing a bill to make the VA release all future inspector general reports.

McDonald said working with the mediators improved the situation at St. Cloud.

“Good progress was made, but you’ll find that in labor management work, it’s a journey, not a destination, meaning you’re never done,” McDonald said.

Bahl said the improvement projects the St. Cloud VA will work on going forward mostly deal with communication between labor and management, as well as training and education.

The most important goal to address is establishing a workplace culture “that is open and transparent,” McDonald said.

McDonald added that at the behest of the Minnesota congressional delegation, the VA had identified where areas of needed improvement at St. Cloud intersected with nationwide VA improvement goals, and the St. Cloud VA was tasked with finishing them by the end of the year. That way, McDonald said, changes would be set in motion before a new U.S. president is inaugurated in January and a new cabinet picked, with possibly a new VA secretary.