PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - A U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs official on Wednesday defended a training guide produced for its Philadelphia office depicting veterans as Oscar the Grouch, saying the images were intended to remind employees to behave professionally.
The office used the 18-slide presentation to prepare staff for a series of town-hall-style meetings on Wednesday to help the agency restore trust lost during a nationwide scandal over substandard service at its clinics.
Instead, the materials, first reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer, triggered a storm of criticism of the department’s regional office.
The images of the cranky “Sesame Street” character were not intended as a sign of disrespect to veterans of the U.S. armed services, said Diana Rubens, the newly appointed director of the Philadelphia regional office.
The slide show includes a section called, “Managing the Angry Customer,” along with several graphics of Oscar, a puppet character who lives in a trash can on the children’s television show.
One image of Oscar in the training guide uses the phrase, “100% GROUCHY, DEAL WITH IT.” Another has a “CRANKY” sign hanging from the Grouch’s trash can.
The presentation was created for ”our employees, many of whom are volunteers, who don’t interact with veterans in person or over the phone on a day-to-day basis,” Rubens said after the first of the agency’s town hall meetings in Philadelphia.
“Obviously, we won’t use those graphics anymore,” she said, adding that she was not sure where the idea originated.
More than 100,000 veterans have been experiencing waits of more than 90 days for appointments at medical centers run by the Veterans Affairs Department, according to an internal audit released by the agency in June.
The survey revealed that a scandal over cover-ups of long wait times at VA clinics, during which some veterans are said to have died, was broader and deeper than initially thought.
Joe Davis, a national spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said the department was suffering a “crisis in confidence.”
“If you talk to the veterans in the system, they receive phenomenal care,” he said. “But now they’ve lost a lot of trust this year.”
As for the Oscar the Grouch imagery, Davis said: “What they should do is just come right out, apologize for it and not try to spin it.”
Editing by Frank McGurty and Leslie Adler