WASHINGTON — Robert McDonald floated through his confirmation as the new Department of Veterans Affairs secretary, but he now faces the hard work of transforming a floundering bureaucracy — and the expectation he will begin by firing managers.
The former Army Ranger and CEO of Procter and Gamble was confirmed Tuesday in a 97-0 vote by lawmakers who believed his boardroom experience could be used to overhaul the nation’s troubled veteran health care system.
Lawmakers, veterans and observers have all said McDonald must begin by holding staff “accountable,” which has become a euphemism for termination.
Numerous VA inspector general investigations and testimony on Capitol Hill over the past two months has revealed a deeply dysfunctional agency that often ignored or covered up dangerous shortcomings in veteran health care. The bureaucracy bedeviled McDonald’s predecessor, former Army Gen. Eric Shinseki, who claimed the problems that led the White House to press for his resignation were systematically hidden from him.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said McDonald has his “work cut out for him” as the department tries to weather the biggest scandal in its history.
“In order to be successful, McDonald will need to take swift and decisive action to discipline employees responsible for mismanagement, negligence and corruption that harms veterans while taking bold steps to replace the department’s culture of complacency with a climate of accountability,” Miller said in a released statement.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said the new secretary should focus on rooting out employees who manipulated patient appointment data to mask long wait times for treatment.
The IG found about 70 percent of VA facilities falsified wait times and that the VA used the data to hand out awards and bonuses. Since the schemes came to light, the department has acknowledged that retaliation against whistleblowers has become a problem.
“I fully expect he will work to restore a culture of accountability at the VA by ensuring that any employee retaliating against a whistleblower or who cooked the books on wait times, is fired, and that we can quickly recover bonuses paid to those fraudsters with taxpayer dollars,” McCaskill said in a released statement.
John W. Stroud, the national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said the new secretary will inherit a department in crisis.
“But he also inherits a VA that is worth saving, which is why the VFW looks forward to working with him and his team as they fix what’s broken, hold employees appropriately accountable to the maximum extent of the law, and restore the faith of veterans in their VA,” Stroud said in a released statement.
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 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 comprises the nation’s largest integrated health care system and serves nearly 9 million veterans at about 1,700 locations around the country. Each day, 200,000 beneficiaries seek care at its hospitals and clinics.
McDonald was not present during the Senate vote but said last week 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.
About 400 senior executives form the upper management of the department. A comprehensive VA reform bill introduced Monday by Sanders and Miller would give McDonald new powers to fire those 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 are provided an appeals process that can take months to resolve.
The VA reform bill must be still 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.