If confirmed by the Senate to be the next secretary of veterans affairs, former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald promised dramatic moves within his first 90 days on the job. (Getty Images)
At Bob McDonald’s confirmation hearing Tuesday on his nomination to become the next Veterans Affairs Secretary, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, joked that he didn’t want to scare McDonald away by listing all the scandals facing VA.
Senators then spent most of the next hour detailing those scandals anyway: medical appointment delays, data manipulation, whistleblower retaliation, benefits confusion, insufficient staffing, a culture of corruption and a loss of public trust.
If confirmed, all of that will fall squarely into the lap of McDonald, a 61-year-old West Point grad with five years of Army service and 33 years of corporate experience who will be tasked with turning the $163 billion, 310,000-plus-employee VA from a besieged bureaucracy to a reliable resource for veterans.
McDonald said he understands the “seriousness of the moment” facing VA, and pledged to use his business experience to transform the department into one focused on the core mission of helping veterans.
“The department’s problems with access, transparency, accountability and integrity have been well documented,” he said. “There is a lot of work to do to transform the department and it will not be easy, but it is essential and can be achieved.”
If confirmed, McDonald promised dramatic reform moves within his first 90 days on the job. He mentioned quarterly video conferences with regional officials, a new physicians review board to evaluate health care delivery, expanded digital records and processing, and an open invitation to whistleblowers to help shape changes in operations.
“My charge will be to provide veterans the care they have earned in the most effective way possible,” he said.
Lawmakers in recent months have said that attitude is sorely lacking in VA, which saw its last secretary forced to resign in May after allegations of mismanagement and abuse among regional directors flared into public view.
McDonald promised more accountability and oversight throughout the department, punctuated by frequent travel away from Washington, D.C., to ensure his message is heard throughout VA offices.
“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 department and of veterans must be, and will be, held accountable.”
Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson already has promised harsh punishment for employees found covering up problems to protect performance bonuses, and for supervisors who silence whistleblowers. Congress also is debating legislation to make it easier for the new secretary to fire underperforming senior executives.
Sanders asked McDonald directly why he — or anyone — would want to take over managing a department surrounded by such chaos and controversy.
But McDonald said he “desperately” wants the position.
“I think I can make a difference,” he said. “I think there is no higher calling, and I think this is an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of veterans.”
McDonald is likely to be confirmed by the full Senate next week. Senators at the confirmation hearing expressed strong support for his candidacy, and Sanders has said he expects to get a full chamber vote before the summer legislative break begins Aug. 2.