The VA Is One Step Closer to Getting a New Leader

The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee approved Robert McDonald’s nomination to lead the scandal-plagued department on Wednesday.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 08: Chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (R) meets with Robert McDonald, President Obama's nominee for Secretary of Veterans Affairs July 8, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. President Obama nominated McDonald to succeed Eric Shinseki as the next Veterans Affairs secretary in the wake of the scandal involving treatment delays for veterans. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
National Journal
July 23, 2014, 7:39 a.m.

The Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment could soon have a new lead­er.

The Sen­ate Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee voted un­an­im­ously Wed­nes­day to ap­prove Robert Mc­Don­ald’s nom­in­a­tion to be the next sec­ret­ary. The full Sen­ate could vote next week, with law­makers hop­ing to get Mc­Don­ald con­firmed be­fore they leave town for the Au­gust re­cess.

“Mr. Mc­Don­ald brings us two very im­port­ant qual­it­ies,” Com­mit­tee Chair­man Bernie Sanders said in a state­ment. “No. 1, he is fa­mil­i­ar with the mil­it­ary be­cause he served for many years and he brings a pas­sion to take care of our vet­er­ans. The oth­er qual­ity that he brings is that he has been the CEO of a ma­jor Amer­ic­an cor­por­a­tion, and that ex­per­i­ence gives him the tools to cre­ate a well-run and ac­count­able VA.”

The com­mit­tee held a con­firm­a­tion hear­ing for Mc­Don­ald on Tues­day, and the quick turn­around is of little sur­prise. The former CEO of Procter & Gamble has broad bi­par­tis­an sup­port. Even some Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors — fre­quently crit­ics of the de­part­ment — have said his con­firm­a­tion is all but guar­an­teed.

“I think you’re the right man for the job, and I think you’ll do a great job,” Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Johnny Isak­son told Mc­Don­ald dur­ing the hear­ing.

And while sen­at­ors gave him a warm wel­come, they also have a long To Do List if he gets con­firmed. Mc­Don­ald is tasked with over­haul­ing the de­part­ment, fix­ing what has been called a “cor­ros­ive cul­ture,” en­sur­ing that vet­er­ans get timely ac­cess to care, and also mak­ing pro­gress on myri­ad oth­er is­sues, in­clud­ing cut­ting back­logged dis­ab­il­ity claims and re­du­cing vet­er­ans’ home­less­ness.

Mc­Don­ald said, if con­firmed, he plans to make re­forms dur­ing his first 90 days in of­fice, in­clud­ing re­struc­tur­ing met­rics for em­ploy­ees’ eval­u­ations. He will also travel across the coun­try in the first few months to meet with em­ploy­ees, vet­er­ans, and oth­er stake­hold­ers

The VA has been un­der fire in re­cent months amid an ever-grow­ing scan­dal that in­cludes al­leg­a­tions of data ma­nip­u­la­tion at med­ic­al fa­cil­it­ies and dis­ab­il­ity claims of­fices, re­tali­ation against whistle-blowers, and vet­er­ans dy­ing while wait­ing for care or de­cisions.

Le­gis­la­tion aimed at provid­ing ex­tra fund­ing to the de­part­ment and in­creas­ing a vet­er­an’s abil­ity to get non-VA health care is stalled in a con­fer­ence com­mit­tee, as law­makers haggle over a range of de­tails, in­clud­ing how to pay for the pro­pos­al.

Asked about what he wants the le­gis­la­tion to ac­com­plish, Mc­Don­ald said he re­ferred back to act­ing Sec­ret­ary Sloan Gib­son, a former West Point class­mate.

“I think he’s talked about the re­sourcing needs that we need, and that’s all about ac­cess,” he said.

Gib­son has been serving as the act­ing VA chief since Eric Shin­seki stepped down in late May as the scan­dal sur­round­ing the de­part­ment worsened.

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