More than 75 veterans and their family members, many fuming, packed a town-hall meeting at Philadelphia's veterans hospital Wednesday, scolding administrators about the quality of care and voicing deep skepticism that change is possible.
What was billed as a question-and-answer session turned into a mostly one-way onslaught, the most heated of three Veterans Affairs town-hall meetings held in the city in an attempt to repair trust lost by the national scandal over delayed care.
A panel of administrators, nodding in recognition of the fury from a table at the front of the auditorium, listened, apologized, and promised to do better.
"It angers me when I come to a venue like this, when I see folks sitting up front with the shirts and ties and dresses, who supposedly have answers," said one veteran among the group gathered at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in University City. "But yet, as soon as the meeting is over, nothing changes. It's the same old B.S."
"We are looking forward to a new day," replied moderator Susan Blake, chief of quality management at the facility. "We understand your frustration and concerns."
The event, at times overtaken by shouts from veterans and calls for courtesy from organizers, was a stark turn from the sparsely attended and largely civil meetings held two weeks ago at the city's benefits office in Germantown. It followed last week's visit by Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald to both facilities, which have been under scrutiny for issues ranging from alleged wait-time manipulation to insensitivity to veterans.
At the hospital and a clinic it runs in Horsham - which between them serve more than 65,000 veterans from Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey - some appointment schedulers have said they were instructed to enter dates different than those requested by veterans, a method of masking delays, according to an internal VA audit.
While the hospital's spokeswoman has said that the problems were bookkeeping errors and that an ongoing investigation by the VA Office of Inspector General would not find willful data manipulation, hospital director Daniel Hendee said Wednesday he would wait until the investigation is complete to draw a conclusion.
"Certainly, based on what I know of this organization and the confidence I have in the staff, while I don't believe there was true manipulation, again I want to be very clear to say, we are going to await the independent investigation," he said.
The FBI and Department of Justice are involved, to varying degrees, in each of the ongoing investigations at VA facilities, according to a spokeswoman for the Inspector General's Office. Hendee said he was not aware of federal investigators' reviewing potential criminal charges connected to data manipulation in Philadelphia.
Complaints at Wednesday's meeting, which drew a crowd that lined the walls of the small auditorium, were varied and spanned both the health and benefits systems.
A woman said she scheduled an appointment for November only to have it canceled last month with no explanation.
A patient who wheeled himself to the auditorium from his hospital room described an endless runaround with doctors that has not resulted in answers about his condition.
A man questioned who would be fired over a training manual used last month at the city's benefits office that appeared to liken veterans to Oscar the Grouch, the trash-can-dwelling Sesame Street character.
Frank Thorne, a 39-year-old veteran from Philadelphia, said a VA doctor failed to diagnose a slipped disk in his back that has left him in crippling pain. He said he dreads visiting the VA hospital.
"I'm sorry that's been your experience," Blake told him.
"It's been everybody's," several in the audience responded, as hands beckoning the microphone shot into the air.
Some attempted to calm the tension and keep the conversation productive.
"You're not on your own. We have to work together," said Nelson Mellitz, a member of the Jewish War Veterans and an appointee to Gov. Christie's Veterans Service Council. He encouraged veterans to lean on service organizations for help with their cases.
Theresa Thornton, holding a purple book filled with handwritten notes about her father's and brother's VA benefits claims, said she hoped the scrutiny of the embattled agency would lead to real change. But she said the public had to hold "feet to the fire" to make sure that happens.
"My father answered the call. So did my brother. So did all of these people here. So did you, sir," she said, turning to face Hendee, an Air Force veteran. "So, anything you can do to help us push forward and not let this just be another exercise in vain."
Hendee said Wednesday that the hospital plans to host more meetings. When attendees asked for those to be held within the community, not at the hospital, administrators said that could be done.
He also said several representatives from the hospital will speak at a Philadelphia City Council committee meeting Monday. He said staff will follow up with every veteran who spoke Wednesday.
"We want to listen to you. When you listen, you learn," he said. "We are committed to changing this organization for the better. . . . It's just going to take us a little bit of time to do so."