VA customer relations training equates vets angry over care with ... Oscar the Grouch

Needless to say, the Department of Veteran Affairs has had its public-relations challenges this year. The wait-list scandal cost Eric Shinseki his Cabinet post, and the families of dozens of dead veterans in Phoenix claim it cost the lives of those men, even though the government officially exonerated itself this week. A new report from the Philadelphia Inquirer shows that the VA has busied itself with an effort to cheer up veterans by asking its staff to think of them as … Oscar the Grouch?

The beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs depicted dissatisfied veterans as Oscar the Grouch in a recent internal training guide, and some vets and VA staffers said Tuesday that they feel trashed.

The cranky Sesame Street character who lives in a garbage can was used in reference to veterans who will attend town-hall events Wednesday in Philadelphia. …

The slide show, “What to Say to Oscar the Grouch – Dealing with Veterans During Town Hall Claims Clinics,” was shown to employees who will staff those events.

Most slides touch on routine instructions, including dressing professionally, being polite, showing empathy, and maintaining eye contact.

But the “grouch” theme is maintained throughout.

About a dozen slides include pictures of the misanthropic Muppet in the can he calls home. In one, a sign reading “CRANKY” hangs from the rim. In another, Oscar’s face is flanked by the words “100% GROUCHY, DEAL WITH IT.”

Referring to veterans unhappy with access to their care as Oscar the Grouch might in fact be part of the entire problem at the VA. Customer-service training is always a challenge because it has to engage staffers and capture their imagination a bit, but … Oscar the Grouch? One has to assume that most of these staffers had put a few years between themselves and their Sesame Street age. Forget for a moment the condescending tone that sets in regard to the patients — it’s almost as insulting to the staff.

The larger problem, though, is that the program appears to have assumed that the only problems were the crankiness of their clientele. The Inquirer notes that the training program appears to be a few years old, so it predates the current scandal, but the issue of poor service to veterans extends back for more than a decade. Even the VA’s executives admitted that the problem existed, even if they refused to admit its extent or its scope, and certainly fibbed about making progress in resolving it. Their patients weren’t cranky, they were sick or injured, ignored, and forgotten. This training underscores how the VA’s first priority has been the VA and not the veterans whom they are supposed to serve.

In some cases, though, the analogy may make some sense. For instance, this Florida veteran is about to lose his house to foreclosure while waiting for the VA to make a determination on whether his service injury qualifies for disability coverage. Willie Butts has been waiting for nine years, and still hasn’t gotten a decision. In the meantime, the bank is ready to foreclose because Butts can’t work enough with his pain to cover his house payments:

If the VA waits much longer, Willie Butts may have to live on the street just like Oscar the Grouch, too. Too bad the VA isn’t moving with alacrity to prevent Butts from being “100% GROUCHY,” or even dealing with the reality of why veterans are unhappy in the first place.

I reached out to Pete Hegseth of Concerned Veterans for America, who said that this exposes “the dirty little secret about how many VA officials feel about veterans.” They see veterans as the problem, not the clients. “If veterans were seen as customers, they wouldn’t be seen as Oscar the Grouch,” Pete said. “This feeds the fears about how veterans believe they are perceived at the VA.” He assured me that CV4A will not let this slide, either.