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McDonald to Trump: Lack of VA successor could hurt transition

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Bob McDonald, at a September, 2014 press conference.

JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 10, 2017

WASHINGTON — Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald on Tuesday criticized President-elect Donald Trump for not yet naming his successor and expressed concern that his reform efforts would be undone.

With VA employees across the country watching on live-stream video, McDonald gave his last speech to an advisory committee of outside leaders who oversee VA transformation. Besides blasting the transition process, he reiterated messages to the Trump administration to not derail progress at the agency, and to Congress to pass VA reforms that didn’t make it through the Senate last session.

After the speech, committee member Herman Bulls, vice chairman of real estate company Jones Lang LaSalle, asked McDonald what advice he would give to the next VA secretary.

“That’s if I get to meet my successor,” McDonald said, prompting laughs. “I would like to.”

As of Tuesday – 10 days until Trump’s inauguration – the president-elect had not nominated anyone to replace McDonald, though more than a dozen people have been considered as candidates. McDonald and others in appointed positions at the VA are planning to step down as of Jan. 20.

“In business, you identify a successor as part of a succession plan, and you work together – the current and the successor – over a period of time so you don’t lose a beat in what you’re doing,” McDonald said. “I’m not used to government, where you leave a note in the drawer, supposedly. It doesn’t make sense to me when you’re dealing with the lives of 21 million-plus veterans.”

Veterans service organizations are anxiously waiting for an announcement, especially after Cleveland Clinic CEO Toby Cosgrove and businessman Luis Quinonez – considered top contenders for the Cabinet position – dropped out of the running two weeks ago.

The country’s most prominent veterans groups asked in mid-December for a meeting with Trump but it has not happened.

“We’ve been patient I think; we’ve not only offered, but requested, an opportunity to meet with him to discuss his concerns and share our views,” said Joe Chenelly, executive director of American Veterans, or AMVETS. “We’ve not received a reply at all. That’s disheartening. We don’t want to see any type of progress slide back.” 

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said Friday he was concerned that a new VA secretary had not been named. After someone is named, he or she will have to go through a Senate confirmation hearing before the nomination goes to the Senate floor for consideration.

“If he needs more counsel before making this important decision, he should start by personally sitting down with our nation’s Veterans Service Organizations,” Tester said in a written statement. “Every day he continues to delay his decision, he jeopardizes the seamless transition that is needed.”

McDonald said his advice to his replacement would be to not make decisions based on political ideology, to reward well-performing employees and to keep up the momentum of reform efforts.

“We put together a plan here, and we purposefully laid out 2017 strategies,” McDonald said. “We’re not where we need to be – it’s not ‘mission accomplished’ – but please keep it going. It takes a long time to change in a large organization.”

VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said “irrefutable progress” has been made since McDonald took over. The duo touted an increase in capacity to get veterans same-day access to primary care and mental health services at all VA medical centers, and they cited efforts to hire and better train employees, update technology and add health care facilities.

Committee member Richard Carmona, former U.S. surgeon general, again called for Trump to retain McDonald and Gibson in their positions.

“You two have earned the right to stay,” Carmona said. “If this was a Fortune 500 company, we’d be offering you bonuses to stay. We can’t afford to let you go, and I hope the president-elect sees the team around you and allows us to continue this journey under your leadership.”

Leaders of some veterans groups conveyed that message to Trump’s transition team.

In a letter last month, an additional 20 groups asked Trump to retain McDonald, stating that there has been progress at the VA and the veterans community “cannot afford to start over.”

Trump’s team has not approached McDonald about staying in the position, a VA spokesman said.

wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkwentling

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