WASHINGTON – Robert McDonald was unanimously confirmed by the Senate Tuesday as the new Department of Veterans Affairs secretary.
The former Army Ranger and CEO of Procter and Gamble was confirmed in a 97-0 vote by lawmakers who said his boardroom experience could be used to overhaul the nation’s troubled veteran health care system.
His predecessor Gen. Eric Shinseki stepped down in May amid a growing scandal over long patient wait times and manipulation of appointment data by VA staff. Numerous VA inspector general investigations and testimony on Capitol Hill over the past two months have revealed a deeply dysfunctional agency that often ignored or covered up dangerous shortcomings in care.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said Tuesday that McDonald headed up one of the country’s leading corporations and has the experience need to deal with a “huge bureaucracy that needs significant improvement in accountability and management.”
McDonald, 61, spent 33 years at P&G where he headed up the company’s Tide detergent brand and later its global fabric care division before being promoted to president and CEO in 2009. He graduated from West Point and rose to the rank of captain in the 82nd Airborne Division before entering the private sector.
The VA is the nation’s largest integrated health care system and serves nearly 9 million veterans at about 1,700 locations. Each day, 200,000 beneficiaries seek care at its hospitals and clinics.
McDonald was not present during the Senate vote but said last week that his first day on the job would include immediately convening a meeting of all top leadership to explain his future vision for the VA.
Experts say he will be faced with removing much of the VA management that oversaw the growth of waiting times at nationwide hospitals and clinics – about 636,000 vets have waited more than a month for requested treatment – and the systemic manipulation of data to cover up the delays.
A comprehensive VA reform bill introduced Monday by Sanders and Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, would give McDonald new powers to fire senior executives at will.
The proposal streamlines the appeals process for fired managers, giving them just one week to appeal terminations and an administrative judge three weeks to make a final ruling. All federal senior executives now have an appeals process that can take months to resolve.
The VA reform bill must be passed by the House and Senate. Sanders said he believes votes could occur before the end of the week when Congress leaves Washington for a month-long recess.