VA chief Bob McDonald: curbing culture seen as callous toward veterans

When McDonald took over as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs this summer, he faced some 100 open investigations. Now, wait times at the notorious Phoenix VA facility are down 37 percent, he said at a Monitor breakfast.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald spoke about changing the culture of the organization, which has been blamed for being callous toward veterans, at a Monitor breakfast Nov. 6.

Now that he is in his 100th day on the job, Department of Veteran Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald has seen the flood of calls and texts to his cell phone – a number he famously handed out to lawmakers during his first congressional hearing – decrease from about 250 to “maybe five to ten a day,” he said Thursday.

It is some measure of progress in a beleaguered VA that has been criticized for failing to put a sizable dent in wait times for basic services for veterans – and that was stung with a scandal at a Phoenix, Ariz., facility that one whistle-blower has claimed led to the deaths of several patients.

Today at that same Phoenix VA – a  site that is admittedly the prioritized focus of a great deal of public scrutiny – wait times are down 37 percent, Secretary McDonald pointed out at a Monitor Breakfast this morning. As he was getting settled into his seat after introductions, McDonald urged the press on hand to call him Bob. “I’m encouraging everyone at Veterans Affairs to do that.”

It is in part an effort to change the culture of a government organization that has been criticized for being remote and callous toward the veterans it is serving. 

It’s the same reason he hands out his cell phone number, normally the coveted domain of Washington insiders. “By giving out my cell phone number I was trying to set an example of what my expectation is for them,” he says, referring to his fellow VA officials. 

“Changing culture is one of the most important things a leader can do, particularly coming out of a crisis situation,” he adds. “It is in my best interest to move as quickly and aggressively as possible in changing that culture.”

To this end, McDonald has visited 41 different VA facilities since he was sworn in, meeting with whistle-blowers and noting needed areas of change.    

Even as these cultural changes are underway, the VA itself continues to grapple with the legacy of its past, most notably more than 100 open investigations into mismanagement and fraud, including the FBI’s investigation into the Phoenix VA scandal.

After a unanimous 97 to 0 Senate confirmation vote, critics nevertheless take little note of grace periods, even for a former CEO who now runs an organization that is three times the size of Proctor and Gamble, his old company. That includes 340,000 employees and 22 million veterans under his care. 

McDonald has been criticized by lawmakers who accuse him of not acting quickly and severely enough with mis-managers.

When the FBI investigations into these particular people are complete, he says, we will take “aggressive disciplinary action.” 

In the meantime, “we know that the trust has been compromised with the VA,” he said, “and we know that we’re going to have to earn back that trust –  one veteran at a time."

He cites ongoing investigations and constitutional property laws that prevent him from, say, yanking the retirement benefits of senior managers who have been charged with misconduct “unless the person creates treason or a treasonous-like activity,” he says. 

“The law didn’t grant any kind of new power that would suddenly give me the ability to walk into the room and fire people – and I wouldn’t do that to anyone.” 

As reporters continued to press issues of accountability, McDonald cited new VA moves to extend clinic hours and get mobile health units out on the street, which helped the VA make 1.2 million more appointments with vets compared with the same period last year, he says. 

Still, he acknowledges that, if history is any guide, need for VA services will continue to increase. The VA is still paying for care for one Civil War descendant, and 100 Spanish-American War dependents, he notes in one of the VA’s most oft-cited statistics to illustrate the commitment and demands on a system that will need to care for Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans for decades to come.

After completing 60 parachute jumps, McDonald notes that he himself is “missing two discs in my back and every night it’s harder and harder to sleep – and to stand for long periods of time.”

In other words, McDonald wants veterans to know that he feels their pain. The key, analysts say, will be whether he can do something about it.

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