As if rebuilding a scandal-plagued department weren’t enough, former Fortune 500 executive and newly-confirmed Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald will have another issue on his plate: a lawsuit on the VA’s treatment of military sexual assault victims.
Two veterans groups sued the VA claiming it discriminated against survivors of military sexual assault on Tuesday, the same day the Senate unanimously confirmed President Obama’s pick to be the next leader of the VA, leaving him to clean up a department reeling from reports of long wait times, poor care and retaliation against whistleblowers in the department’s vast veterans health networks.
“It certainly seems clear to me that Mr. McDonald is the right person to lead the VA,” said Sen. Jerry Moran, Kansas Republican, on the Senate floor. “He is capable of restoring hope in veterans so they can trust the agency that was created for their benefit.”
The 61-year-old Mr. McDonald, confirmed on a 97-0 vote, is the former top executive at Procter & Gamble and also a graduate of West Point and a former Army Ranger. Mr. Obama said Mr. McDonald’s blend of business know-how and military experience makes him the right man to take over the scandal-plagued bureaucracy.
“As a veteran himself and a proud member of a military family, Bob is deeply committed to serving our veterans and their families,” Mr. Obama said in a statement. “As an executive with decades of private-sector experience, he is uniquely equipped to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, and to help change the way the VA does business.”
Mr. McDonald will replace acting Secretary Sloan Gibson, who took over the department earlier this year when Eric Shinseki was forced to step down amid a spate of stories about the department’s troubles.
John Stroud, national commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars, congratulated the new secretary on his willingness to step into such a difficult position at such a troubled time.
“Secretary McDonald is inheriting a VA in crisis, but he also inherits a VA that is worth saving,” Mr. Stroud said.
In the new lawsuit, filed by the Service Women’s Action Network and Vietnam Veterans of America, the department stands accused of discriminating against survivors of military sexual trauma who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
Because it can be difficult to prove that PTSD caused by sexual assault stems from the victim’s time in the military, applicants are often denied VA disability benefits, said Megan Wade, an intern in the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School.
“The veteran must establish a service connection, must prove current disability relates to time in service,” she said. “Military sexual trauma survivors have a hard time proving this because of VA’s high evidentiary standards.”
She said it’s easier to prove service-connected PTSD for other reasons, such as combat trauma, than it is to prove it from sexual assault. And she charged there was an element of gender discrimination because while men are the majority of assault victims, women have a higher rate of having their sexual assault-related PTSD claims approved, Ms. Wade said.
Anu Bhagwati, executive director of SWAN, said the groups asked the VA to review and change its broken sexual assault disability claims process. The VA refused earlier this month, so the groups filed the lawsuit Tuesday in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
A $17 billion bill to overhaul the VA’s health care system and give the new secretary more power to remove VA officials is moving quickly through Congress. The 97-0 vote was an early sign of bipartisan support as Mr. McDonald takes over the agency.
The new VA chief “has a tough job ahead of him,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said Tuesday.