President Obama’s choice to be the next secretary of veterans affairs will inherit a bureaucratic nightmare that not only gave rise to the scandal of secret waiting lists at VA hospitals but also left the department facing cost overruns, physician shortages and systemic mismanagement.
Senators on Tuesday will grill Robert McDonald, the former chairman and CEO of consumer giant Procter & Gamble, about whether he is the right man for that daunting job.
The Veterans Affairs system came under fire earlier this year when a whistleblower at a Phoenix facility revealed at least 40 veterans died while waiting for care on a secret list, designed to make wait times appear shorter and help employees earn more valuable bonuses.
More secret waiting lists were revealed at other VA hospitals and a plethora of other problem surfaced across the department, ranging from retaliation against whistleblowers to faulty record keeping to negligent doctors, ultimately forcing the resignation of VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki.
VA watchers say Mr. McDonald won’t have the luxury of focusing on just one problem if and when he is confirmed.
“He can put more people at this and get these appointments made and work through the system, but as soon as that crisis is over, there’s a lot more on his plate than just that waitlist issue,” said Dan Dellinger, national commander of the American Legion.
Mr. Dellinger said the next secretary will have to increase transparency, complete existing construction projects that are already billions over budget, and reform the Veterans Benefits Administration and determine the fate of its embattled boss, Allison Hickey, who some have said should resign. Mr. Dellinger also said he’d like to hear Mr. McDonald say he plans to do away with VA bonuses for top-level employees as the troubles mount.
“That money could be better used to take care of our veterans, hire more physicians and mental health specialists,” he said. “Definitely, that needs to go away.”
On each of these initiatives, Mr. Dellinger said Mr. McDonald will need to provide specifics on what actions he will take to fix the problems, with vague rhetoric and promises to fix things unlikely to satisfy senators of both parties at Tuesday’s hearing of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
“Any details he can provide would go a long way to ensure us he’s on the right track, not just giving us lip service,” he said.
Pete Hegseth, chief executive officer of Concerned Veterans for America, said Mr. McDonald should address how specifically he would use a new authority being considered by Congress that would make it easier to fire top employees for poor performance.
“What is a fireable offense under Bob McDonald?” Mr. Hegseth said.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, the Vermont independent who chairs the veterans’ panel, said he is also hoping to hear what Mr. McDonald would do to bring long-term leadership to the department.
“It is absolutely imperative that the VA move to provide quality care in a timely manner to all of our veterans,” Mr. Sanders said. “We also must move aggressively to further reduce the claims backlog and veterans’ homelessness.”
While Mr. McDonald, a West Point grad and Army veteran before beginning his corporate career, has a lot of work to do, he also has many allies on Capitol Hill and in the veterans’ community, said Mr. Hegseth.
“He’s in the worst of opportunities but also the best of opportunities,” he said. “He’s walking into a department where everyone knows dramatic actions need to be taken.”
Mr. McDonald already has the support of one veteran: Wes Hayes, a former classmate of Mr. McDonald’s at West Point who also served with him in the 82nd Airborne infantry division after graduation. Mr. Hayes, who went on to serve in the National Guard and rose to the rank of colonel during his 30-year career, said Mr. McDonald was a top student and well respected by his classmates in the West Point class of 1975.
He continued to demonstrate excellent leadership after graduation and Mr. Hayes said he likely would have risen through the ranks if he decided to make the military his career.
“He rose through the platoon leader ranks [and] held some key staff positions in short order, which means his organizational abilities were spotted by his battalion commander and officers,” Mr. Hayes said. “I think had he stayed in, he would have been marked for higher office. I just think he’s an outstanding leader with the drive and intellect to succeed at whatever he takes on.”