WASHINGTON — A veterans group has created a new way for service members to put pressure on the Veterans Administration as complaints of long lines and substandard care continue to plague the VA.
The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America will launch TheWaitWeCarry.org Tuesday, a social network that lets veterans post personal stories of seeking and receiving care at VA facilities around the United States. These stories are then displayed on an interactive map of the U.S., providing a birds-eye view of veterans care around the country.
The site allows users to directly contact any participant on the site, which the IAVA hopes will help reporters, congress, and the VA better understand the story of care.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, IAVA founder and Iraq War veteran Paul Rieckhoff said the new website offers a powerful way to examine VA care in real-time and stop the next scandal before it starts.
"We knew about Phoenix, and everyone in the [veterans community] knew about Phoenix," he said. "But the folks in Washington seemed surprised by it. So what The Wait We Carry can do is also show them where the next Phoenix is going to be, where the real problems are now. Because one thing we do know is we can't count on VA to know themselves."
Last week, President Obama and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald attended a bipartisan roundtable at the Phoenix VA facility, where media reports detailed delays that went on so long, some veterans allegedly died while waiting for care. Following the reports, complaints about the overloaded VA hospital system emerged all over the country.
The president said there's much more work to be done at the VA, but said everyone he spoke with who made it through the backlog to actually receive care found it to be "outstanding."
Rieckhoff said that statement painted a rosier picture of VA care than he's seen. He also criticized the president for taking so long to visit the Phoenix VA, where problems first emerged in the media over a year ago. IAVA hopes the new social network will spur interest in a story that has faded from the national agenda.
"The president taking this long to get to Phoenix was like President Bush taking a long time to get to Katrina," he said. "What this [site] offers the opportunity to do is, imagine if you could talk to people in Katrina a couple of years after it and say, 'how are you doing?' This gives us a chance to ask veterans around the country, 'how are you doing?'"
Rieckhoff is cautiously optimistic about the future of the VA with former Proctor and Gamble CEO McDonald at the helm. Obama nominated McDonald for the job after the president's first VA secretary, former Gen. Eric Shinseki, resigned at the height of the backlog scandal. Reickhoff praised the move and said McDonald has asked to be briefed by IAVA on their new tool. (A spokesperson for the VA declined to comment on the record.)
The website is latest in high tech "asymetrical warfare" advocacy by the IAVA, in the words of Rieckhoff. Last year, as the backlog scandal raged, IAVA created an online toolkit to teach would-be VA whistleblowers how to evade being caught by federal investigators.
The group is launching this new website like a startup -- developers at South by Southwest were given a private preview, and tech thinkers at TED in Vancouver this week were treated to a "guerilla" launch by Rieckhoff, who attended the conference.
IAVA hopes the website, developed with a grant from the Knight Foundation by IAVA's in-house tech team, will empower vets whose time on the battlefield came well before the internet generation. TheWaitWeCarry.org is open to veterans of all American wars, not just the two IAVA's members fought in.
"I don't think women in the VA system would consistently say care is great. I don't think people in rural areas would consistently say care is great," Rieckhoff said. "There's the old saying, 'if you've seen one VA, you've seen one VA.' It's really inconsistent."
Evan McMorris-Santoro is the White House correspondent for BuzzFeed News.
Contact Evan McMorris-Santoro at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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