VA Nominee Pledges Quick Action to Overhaul Troubled Healthcare System for Vets

Gannett News Service

July 24, 2014

Veterans Affairs' Secretary-nominee Robert McDonald vowed Tuesday he will take quick action to overhaul the beleaguered health care system to better serve the nation's 22 million veterans.

"The seriousness of this moment demands urgent action, and if confirmed, I pledge to this committee, and to our nation's veterans, to take a series of immediate actions over the first 90 days to deliver the needed reforms our veterans deserve," McDonald testified at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. "I will put the veteran at the center of everything we do."

McDonald, a West Point graduate and retired Army captain, said he would travel extensively during the first several months to hear directly from veterans and VA employees and whistleblowers.

"I plan to ask all employees to bring forward any additional flags, concerns, or problems so as the leader, I know the full picture of what's going wrong and what can be improved," he said. "If confirmed, it will be important to . . . reward those that constructively come forward to solve problems."

McDonald also plans to establish a board of physicians to advise him on best practices for delivering timely, quality health care. He said the board would include the best physicians possible from inside and outside the VA system.

McDonald, an engineer and the retired chairman, president and CEO of Procter & Gamble Co. in Cincinnati, is expected to be confirmed easily by the Senate before the chamber adjourns for a month-long recess to begin Aug. 2.

The Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee—whose members praised McDonald's qualifications and treated him gently Tuesday—could vote to recommend his confirmation to the full Senate as early as Wednesday.

President Barack Obama nominated the Republican business leader for the job in June after former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned amid reports that veterans in Phoenix and elsewhere died waiting for health care and that VA officials covered up facts about how long patients were forced to wait.

"I desperately want this job because I think I can make a difference," McDonald said when VA Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., asked him why he wants such a stressful job.

To regain the trust of veterans and the American people, the VA must hold every employee accountable for their performance, McDonald said.

"The majority of employees at VA are dedicated to the mission and values of the organization," he said. "But those employees that have violated the trust of the nation and of veterans must be, and will be, held accountable."

McDonald said he would focus on reorganizing the VA to use its resources in the most efficient and effective way and develop a strategy for meeting the increasing demand for health care from the nation's veterans.

"At the same time, I believe the department will need to continue to expand the use of digital technology to free human resources that can be applied more to care for the veterans," he said.

VA officials have complained about out-of-date software and technology that has hindered their ability to create an efficient appointment scheduling system.

McDonald said the VA has operated as a loosely connected set of individual administrations from region to region. He said the department needs to be united and focused on a shared duty to serve veterans.

Tomorrow, I hope the department can be 'one team with one dream' that will be to get the best care and services to our veterans in an efficient and timely manner," he said.

McDonald led Procter & Gamble from 2009 to 2013, bringing in nearly a billion more customers for the company's products and using digital technology to gain new customers in remote areas.

"That's the experience needed to modernize VA to serve the next generation of returning warriors, including women, post-9/11 veterans with complex injuries, and those suffering from Traumatic Brain Injury and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder," McDonald said.

While McDonald's confirmation seems assured, Congress members are still trying to negotiate a final compromise on legislation to reform the VA system. The bill they are considering would give the new secretary greater power to fire VA employees for poor performance and permit veterans to seek treatment from private physicians if VA doctors cannot see them in a timely manner.

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