Top priority for VA secretary nominee is getting veterans through pandemic
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 27, 2021
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WASHINGTON — Denis McDonough, President Joe Biden’s pick for secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, listed one of his top priorities Wednesday as “getting our veterans through this pandemic.”
The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee was set to question McDonough on Wednesday afternoon during a confirmation hearing. After the hearing, McDonough’s nomination will be sent to the Senate floor for a vote.
In his written statement to senators, McDonough, 51, listed the issues Biden told him to focus on, and getting veterans through the coronavirus pandemic was the first. As of Wednesday, coronavirus death rates at the VA were the highest they haveever been. More than 8,700 veterans and 120 VA workers havedied of the virus – nearly 2,000 of those deaths occurring in the previous three weeks.
If confirmed, McDonough would be responsible for a massive effort to administer coronavirus vaccines to millions of veterans and health care workers across the country. One VA official described it as a “herculean” task that would take innovative ideas to accomplish. Last week, the agency initiated a pilot program in which vaccine doses are flown into rural, hard-to-reach areas.
In addition to confronting the challenges posed by the pandemic, McDonough’s priorities include: helping veterans build civilian lives with education and job opportunities and making the VA more inclusive for women, minority and LGBTQ veterans, as well as working to eliminate veteran homelessness, reducing veteran suicide and building trust with veterans, their families and caregivers.
In addition, McDonough said he would have a “relentless focus” on what he described as the department’s three core responsibilities: providing timely, world-class health care, ensuring timely access to VA benefits and “honoring our veterans with their final resting place.”
“This won’t be easy,” McDonough wrote. “The [VA] faces great challenges—challenges made even more daunting by the coronavirus pandemic. Its capabilities have not always risen to the needs of our veterans.”
Some veterans and advocates in Washington have been critical of McDonough’s lack of military service. If confirmed, he’ll become only the second VA secretary who is not a veteran. David Shulkin, whom former President Donald Trump nominated at the start of his presidency, was the first.
McDonough addressed that concern Wednesday, noting the instances he’s worked with and spoken with veterans and service members.
During his time in the White House, he traveled to Afghanistan and Iraq to meet with troops and “witnessed the heavy burdens of long deployments,” he said. He also met with military families who lost loved ones and visited wounded service members at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
“Beside their hospital beds when they come home, I’ve seen their resilience in the face of wounds – visible and invisible – that can last a lifetime,” McDonough said in the opening statement.
McDonough and Biden have touted his government experience as the biggest benefit he brings to the job.
McDonough served as principal deputy national security adviser under former President Barack Obama and later took the job as Obama’s chief of staff. McDonough began working with Obama in 2007 as the then-senator’s senior foreign policy adviser. Before working for Obama, McDonough held staff positions in the House and Senate.
“I am ready for this mission,” McDonough said. “As a former White House chief of staff, I bring a deep and extensive knowledge of government. I understand how to untangle and solve large, complex challenges—both across and within large agencies. I have seen firsthand that when our government is at its best, it can help serve the American people—including our veterans—and allow them to live in security and dignity.”
McDonough also wrote Wednesday about his intention to work in a bipartisan way with Congress, saying he would emulate the partnership between Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
With Democrats now in control of the Senate, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., took the helm of the committee for the first time Wednesday. Tester took the gavel from the former chair, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan. Both men said they planned to continue working together for veterans, as they had over the previous year.
Moran said Testerwas a “strong advocate and reliable partner.”
“At a moment when our country must come together, the partnership between the chairman, Senator Moran and members of this committee is inspiring,” McDonough said. “If given the honor of serving as secretary of veterans affairs, I will strive to emulate that partnership in my work with you—as individual members and this committee as a whole.”