By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON – Robert McDonald, the former Procter & Gamble president and CEO, was ushered in as the new Secretary of Veterans Affairs last month with unanimous confirmation by the U.S. Senate and hopeful optimism from advocacy groups and others.
“I applaud the overwhelming, bipartisan confirmation of Bob McDonald as our next secretary of Veterans Affairs. As a veteran himself and a proud member of a military family, Bob is deeply committed to serving our veterans and their families,” President Barack Obama said in a statement after McDonald was confirmed.
Veterans’ service organizations also said they were looking forward to working with McDonald as the new secretary works to reform VA.
“The American Legion is confident that Robert McDonald will apply his experience leading big, complex business operations to the Department of Veterans Affairs, a complex operation that desperately needs a systemwide overhaul right now,” American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger said in a statement.
Meanwhile, in a written missive to VA employees McDonald said that he recognized “that the last few months have been difficult—and the days ahead will not be easy.”
“In fact, many tasks that we must accomplish will be difficult, but I assure you that I will be with you each step of the way. I want to hear your ideas for improving the department, and I will not tolerate those who stifle initiative, seek to punish people who raise legitimate concerns or report problems, or lack integrity in word or deed. Trust is essential in everything we do,” he added..
McDonald is a West Point graduate and served as an Airborne Ranger Infantry Officer in the 82nd Airborne Division prior to a 33-year career at Procter and Gamble. He was nominated by Obama for the VA secretary job in late June.
He replaces Eric Shinseki, who resigned after information came to light that VA care had been delayed for thousands of veterans who had been put on hidden waiting lists as well as allegations that VA administrators had covered up the practice so that it appeared they were meeting goals necessary to receive bonuses.
Despite the challenges that lay ahead in leading the VA, McDonald said at a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing in July to consider his nomination that he “desperately” wanted the job because he thought he could “make a difference.”
“I think there is no higher calling, and I think this is an opportunity for me to make a difference in the lives of the veterans who I care so deeply about,” he told lawmakers.
He told them that caring for veterans was “personal” for him.
“I come from and care deeply for military families. My father served in the Army Air Corps after World War II. My wife’s father was shot down over Europe and survived harsh treatment as a POW. Her uncle was exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam and still receives care from VA. My nephew is right now in the Air Force, deployed in the Middle East,” he explained.
McDonald vowed to lawmakers that, if confirmed, he would “take a series of immediate actions over the first 90 days to deliver the needed reforms our veterans deserve.” He also said he planned to travel extensively over the first several months “to hear directly from employees, veterans, and other stakeholders.”
McDonald told lawmakers he planned to establish a board of physicians to advise him on best practices for delivering timely, quality healthcare. The advisory board would include the “very best medical talent in the world,” and that would include medical professionals in both the civilian sector and the VA, he said.
It was clear during his confirmation hearing that lawmakers were impressed with him. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), a frequent critic of VA care delivery, told McDonald that he is the “right man for the job” who would do “a great job.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) told McDonald that he believed legislators and others were all “rooting” for him.
“I believe that you have a unique and historic opportunity to get done a job that all of our nation’s heroes will be grateful to you for doing,” Blumenthal said.
McDonald’s confirmation came the same week that Congress passed a $16.3 billion dollar piece of legislation to reform VA. The bills provisions include:
- $10 billion to contract out health care for veterans who cannot get an appointment within 30 days or who live more than 40 miles away from a VA facility.
- $5 billion for the VA to recruit more doctors and other clinicians
- $1.3 billion for VA to enter into leases at 27 medical facilities.
- Authority given to the secretary to fire senior executives based on poor job performance, while providing a 21-day period for due-process and appeals.
Legislation that would streamline VA’s community care programs into one program and expand VA’s caregiver program to veterans of all eras was signed into law earlier this month..
The good news from a recent consultant study is that, overall, the VA healthcare system is generally equal or better than others when inpatient and outpatient quality is measured.