WASHINGTON — The Obama administration nominee to head the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs faced no resistance from lawmakers Tuesday during an initial confirmation hearing before a Senate committee.
Senators lauded former Procter and Gamble CEO Bob McDonald, 61, and urged him to use his corporate experience to conduct a bold overhaul of the VA, sending a strong indication that his nomination will swiftly be approved on the Senate floor.
On Wednesday morning, members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee voted 14-0 to send the McDonald nomination to the full chamber, which would have one week to either confirm or deny a new VA secretary before a monthlong congressional recess in August. Committee chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said he expects the Senate to confirm McDonald within days.
McDonald has been nominated to replace Gen. Eric Shinseki, who resigned in May amid a nationwide scandal over the department manipulating records to hide long waits for vets at hospitals and clinics. Investigations and audits have since uncovered deep dysfunction and a bureaucratic culture throughout the VA health care and benefits system that has often failed and endangered veterans.
“You don’t need this job,” Sanders said at Tuesday’s hearing. “In the midst of all these problems … why do you want this job?”
McDonald said he “desperately” wants to take the reins at the department.
“I think there is no higher calling and I think this is a chance to make a different in the lives of veterans I care so deeply about,” he said. “If not me, who?”
McDonald spent 33 years at P&G where he headed up the company’s Tide detergent brand and later global fabric care division before being promoted to president and CEO in 2009.
The company’s stock went up under his leadership but he retired in 2013 amid some dissatisfaction over earnings.
McDonald graduated from West Point and rose to the rank of captain in the 82nd Airborne Division before entering the private sector.
The VA runs the nation’s largest integrated health care system, which serves nearly 9 million veterans at some 1,700 locations around the country. Each day, 200,000 beneficiaries seek care at its hospitals and clinics.
“At the very top of my list is getting the leadership at the top of the organization together and telling them what I am going to do,” McDonald said. “So that is what I am going to do on Day 1.”
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., said P&G was considered one of the best-run corporations in the world during McDonald’s tenure, and that that leadership will be useful in fixing the massive VA system.
“When you run a great company and you have hundreds of thousands of people working for you, you can’t afford to make mistakes,” he said.
The senator said he is not worried about whether McDonald can turn around the department and is instead worried whether Congress is willing to give a new secretary and the VA the money needed for the overhaul through an ongoing effort to get reform legislation off Capitol Hill.
“I feel certain you will be confirmed,” Rockefeller said.
A major reform effort is being spearheaded by Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and John McCain, R-Ariz. So far, it is aimed at expanding access to general care, but a congressional conference committee has been unable to strike a deal due to concerns over an estimated annual price tag as high as $50 billion.
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said he hopes Congress can pass comprehensive reform before leaving for the August recess but urged McDonald to move ahead without Congress once confirmed.
“As soon as we get you confirmed, get busy,” Begich said. “Be bold — not reckless — but be bold.”
Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson testified before Congress earlier this month that the department will need an additional $17.6 billion in funding between now and 2017 to fix its problems.
About $10 billion of that would be used to hire 10,000 new clinicians and patient care staff, and provide health care outside the VA system for veterans unable to get an appointment within a reasonable time frame.