Nominee Robert McDonald: VA can be fixed with 'urgent action'

Former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald says he aims to use his experience digitizing that company to help the embattled VA free up people to take better care of veterans.

Gary Cameron/Reuters
Robert McDonald, nominee for Secretary of Veterans Affairs, testifies at his confirmation hearing at the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee in Washington on Wednesday. 'The people I’ve met seem very dedicated to the mission and the core values – but what we’ve got to do is figure out who wasn’t,' he said.

Even after being rocked by scandal and shortfalls in care, the Department of Veterans Affairs can be fixed with “urgent action,” Robert McDonald, President Obama’s nominee to lead the VA, told lawmakers Tuesday.

That means righting well-documented lapses in “accountability and integrity,” Mr. McDonald, the former CEO of Procter & Gamble, said in his confirmation hearing before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. 

“While there is much that is going well, there have been systematic failures, which suggest that some in the organization have lost track of the mission and the core values,” he said.

“When you run a large organization, there are always things that go wrong,” he added. “The people I’ve met seem very dedicated to the mission and the core values – but what we’ve got to do is figure out who wasn’t.”

If confirmed, as is widely expected to happen in a Senate vote Wednesday, McDonald, a West Point graduate who later served as a captain in the 82nd Airborne Division, will be responsible for turning around a department with some 310,000 employees and a $163 billion budget – a budget that has tripled since 2000.

Lawmakers gently grilled him on how, precisely, he plans to do this. It will be no small challenge, they pointed out, after the VA’s former head, Eric Shinseki, stepped down as secretary in late May, one month after former VA employees alleged that patient records had been falsified, leading to longer wait times and, some allege, to the death of veterans.

Mr. Shinseki’s resignation alone will not fix the VA, lawmakers warned. “The committee needs to hear a plan and, in particular, what the building blocks are that McDonald will put in place to fix the VA," says Phil Carter, director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security. “The committee will also want to know what special P&G formulas he will bring to bear to make the VA better.”

McDonald cited his 33 years at the company, a time in which he digitized P&G’s operations. It is experience essential in taking over a VA that has been widely criticized for using antiquated paper files and being slow to put computerized systems in place, lawmakers noted. Technology can help improve service, McDonald said. “We need to use technology in order to free up people that we can move to taking care of veterans.”

There will be other considerable challenges, too, particularly as lawmakers demand accountability. “The VA’s biggest asset is its human capital, and I think McDonald will need to articulate his vision of how he will lead and manage the workforce at a time when Congress wants to punish it,” Mr. Carter said.

McDonald told lawmakers that he, too, had experienced being “lost in the system” during his transition from military to civilian life. He noted that his wife’s father was shot down over Europe and survived harsh treatment as a prisoner of war, and that her uncle was exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam and still receives care from the VA.

“He speaks very highly of the VA,” McDonald said. “His personal experiences have all been positive.”

While most veterans who have been treated by the VA report overwhelmingly positive experiences, as well, there remains a considerable backlog for those trying to get into the system in the first place, he acknowledged. 

To this end, senators urged McDonald to keep them apprised of his needs. He told them to do the same. “Every member of the committee will have my cell phone number, and I would expect that," he said. 

Lawmakers, for their part, told McDonald to be careful what he wished for.

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