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VA Secretary Nominee Promises Transformation in First 90 Days

WASHINGTON – President Obama’s choice to run the beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs acknowledged that the agency remains plagued by ongoing systematic failures that merit immediate action.

Robert McDonald, the former CEO of consumer products giant Procter & Gamble, told members of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee during his confirmation hearing on Tuesday that “the department’s problems with access, transparency, accountability and integrity have been well documented.”

If confirmed, McDonald vowed to take a series of steps over the first 90 days to “transform” the department and “deliver the needed reforms our veterans deserve.”

“I will put the veterans at the center of all we do, consistent with our mission,” he said.

“The department has made great strides in serving veterans thanks to the commitment of many dedicated employees and hard work with our partners and advocates in the community,” McDonald said. “But the VA is in crisis. The veterans are in need. There is much to do. I can think of no higher calling than to serve our veterans who have so selflessly served our country.”

It appeared from the reception that McDonald received from lawmakers that his campaign to assume the post of secretary of Veterans’ Affairs will face little opposition. Several Republican committee members, including Sen. Jerry Moran, of Kansas, expressed their support.

Moran praised McDonald, a U.S. Army veteran, for his “candor, sincerity and commitment to serving our nation’s veterans.”

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who likewise indicated McDonald has successfully recruited his vote, said the nominee “must usher in a new culture throughout VA.” He further urged McDonald to resolve all systematic problems.

“Although VA has started taking steps to improve access to care, much more work is needed to understand and resolve the full scope of issues facing VA healthcare,” Burr said. “The ongoing internal evaluation by VA and investigations by other offices will be critical in that effort. As the head of VA, Mr. McDonald, it will be essential that you embrace the findings of these investigations and urgently work to bring about needed reforms.”

Burr told McDonald that his job will be to “ensure that this entire department — from top to bottom — is re-focused on providing our nation’s veterans with the high-quality service they have earned and they deserve.”

The VA has been under siege for several weeks in the wake of a critical report issued by the agency’s inspector general finding that 40 patients, former servicemen, died awaiting care at a Phoenix facility. It was determined that employees there kept a secret list of patients who faced prolonged delays in receiving treatment. Investigators suggested those VA workers concealed the actual wait times in hopes of enhancing the perception of the facility’s performance.

Similar problems were uncovered at other VA medical facilities that serve almost 9 million veterans. Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned as a result. McDonald, if confirmed, will replace Sloan Gibson, who has been serving in an acting capacity.

An audit released in June by the Department of Veterans Affairs revealed that more than 57,000 veterans nationwide have been forced to wait 90 days or more for medical appointments at the agency’s facilities. About 64,000 more were included on the agency’s electronic waiting list for doctor appointments. The VA’s stated goal is to arrange appointments within two weeks or less.

The audit scanned more than 730 VA hospitals and clinics and determined that supervisors were encouraging clerks to falsify records in 13 percent of cases.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the committee chairman, noted that McDonald faces an enormous task. “Perhaps the most significant issue is the backlog — 640,000 veterans have an appointment that is more than 30 days from the date when that appointment was initially requested or when that appointment was desired by the patient.”

But, Sanders said, McDonald brings important qualities to the job – he is familiar with the military and “brings with that service a passion to take care of our veterans. And that is obviously an essential quality that we want from our secretary.”

McDonald, he noted, also has served as CEO of one of America’s major corporations with many employees.

“There is no question that we need good quality management, we need transparency, we need accountability and I believe Mr. McDonald’s corporate experience will give him the tools that the needs to create a well-run and accountable VA,” Sanders said.

The Veterans Health Administration operates the nation’s largest integrated healthcare delivery system, managing 150 medical centers, 820 community-based outpatient clinics, 300 Vet Centers, 135 community living centers, 104 rehabilitation treatment programs and 70 mobile Vet Centers. The agency schedules about 236,000 healthcare appointments every day — approximately 85 per year.

More than 300,000 workers at various levels offer services to almost 6.5 million veterans and other beneficiaries annually.

Gibson told the panel the department needs about $17.6 billion in additional revenue to address requested medical services through the end of the 2017 fiscal year. The funding would go toward clinical staff, space, information technology and the processing of veterans’ benefits.

Meanwhile, sides are still bickering over legislation intended to address the VA’s problems. The Senate adopted legislation in June providing the agency with $35 billion through 2016 for the construction of clinics and to hire more doctors. The lower chamber passed a similar bill but House negotiators object to the proposed cost. A conference committee, led by Sanders and Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, is attempting to iron out the differences.