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VA says far-flung agency to be streamlined with 5 regions for all services

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WASHINGTON — The Veterans Affairs Department said Monday it is creating a single regional framework that divides the sprawling agency into five clearly marked regions.

The new framework is part of a larger reorganization that VA leaders say will bring a singular focus on customer service to an agency that serves 22 million veterans, including more than 6 million who receive health care each year from the VA's 970 hospitals or clinics.

The VA now has nine organizational maps and at least a dozen websites, many with their own usernames and passwords, as it provides services ranging from health care to disability benefits, home loans and cemetery plots.

VA Secretary Robert McDonald calls the current structure confusing and difficult to navigate for veterans and their families.

"We want every veteran to have a seamless, integrated and responsive VA customer-service experience every time" they interact with the agency, McDonald said in a news release Monday.

The regional framework is part of a reorganization announced last fall called "MyVA" that is designed to provide veterans with a positive customer service experience, regardless of whether they use the department's website, call their local VA office or walk into a clinic.

PHOTO: FILE - In this Nov. 7, 2014 file photo, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald speaks at the National Press Club in Washington. The Veterans Affairs Department says it is creating a single regional framework that divides the sprawling agency into five clearly marked regions.  The new framework is part of a larger reorganization that VA leaders say will bring a singular focus on customer service to an agency that serves 22 million veterans. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)
FILE - In this Nov. 7, 2014 file photo, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald speaks at the National Press Club in Washington. The Veterans Affairs Department says it is creating a single regional framework that divides the sprawling agency into five clearly marked regions. The new framework is part of a larger reorganization that VA leaders say will bring a singular focus on customer service to an agency that serves 22 million veterans. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

The VA has been under intense scrutiny since last year, following reports that dozens of veterans died while awaiting treatment at the Phoenix VA hospital, and that appointment records were manipulated to hide the delays. A report by the department's inspector general said workers falsified waitlists while their supervisors looked the other way or even directed it, resulting in chronic delays for veterans seeking care and bonuses for managers who falsely appeared to meet on-time goals.

The inspector general's office identified 40 patients who died while awaiting appointments in Phoenix, but said officials could not "conclusively assert" that the delays caused the deaths.

McDonald, a former CEO of consumer giant Procter & Gamble, took over the VA last year after former Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned over the wait-list scandal. The uproar led to a new law overhauling the VA and making it easier to fire senior executives.

McDonald has vowed to make it easier for veterans to navigate the VA and its website and gain access to their earned care and benefits. The "MyVA" restructuring will include hiring a chief customer service officer focused on veterans.

Bob Snyder, executive director of the MyVA program management, said it was not clear how the regional framework would affect the 21 regional health networks that form the backbone of the Veterans Health Administration, which provides health care to nearly 9 million enrolled veterans, including 6 million who use services each year.

"They will have better coordination because they will have a common map," Snyder said, acknowledging that details have yet to be worked out.

The new regional boundaries are set to be completed this summer.

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