WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama's choice to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs pledged Tuesday to transform the beleaguered agency, saying that "systematic failures" must be addressed.
Robert McDonald cited problems with patient access to health care, transparency, accountability and integrity, among other issues.
"The seriousness of the moment demands urgent action," McDonald told the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. "The VA is in crisis. The veterans are in need. There is a lot of work to do to transform the department and it will not be easy, but it is essential and can be achieved."
McDonald, 61, a former Procter & Gamble CEO and an Army veteran, said taking care of veterans is personal for him. His father served in the Army Air Corps after World War II, and his wife's father was shot down over Europe and survived harsh treatment as a prisoner of war. Another relative was exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam and receives care from the VA, McDonald said, and a nephew is in the Air Force, deployed in the Middle East.
If confirmed by the Senate, McDonald said he would take a series of actions over his first 90 days "to deliver the needed reforms our veterans deserve."
He said he plans to lay out a veteran-centered vision for the department and improve communication within the vast agency, which includes more than 300,000 employees in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. His plan includes frequent video conferences with employees and extensive travel to field offices around the country, he said.
No opposition surfaced during the 2 ½-hour hearing, and senators from both parties said McDonald appeared headed to easy confirmation.
"I believe, based on what I heard, you are going to be confirmed, and I hope that is the case," Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the chairman of the Senate veterans panel, told McDonald as the hearing ended.
The Senate panel will vote Wednesday on McDonald's nomination, Sanders said, with a vote by the full Senate likely before the August recess.
Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas was among a host of Republicans to declare support for McDonald, a Republican who supported GOP nominee Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election.
Moran was the first senator to call for Eric Shinseki to step down as VA secretary this spring. Shinseki resigned May 30 amid a growing uproar over treatment delays and falsified records at VA hospitals and clinics nationwide, including reports that dozens died awaiting treatment.
The VA's acting inspector general has confirmed investigations of possible wrongdoing at 87 VA medical facilities nationwide.
Moran, who met with McDonald last week, said he was impressed by the nominee's "candor, sincerity and commitment to serving" veterans. "The VA bureaucracy must be dismantled and Mr. McDonald is focused and ready to take on the many challenges that lie ahead," Moran said.
Sanders also said he was impressed with McDonald.
"I believe that his years of military service will make him a very strong advocate for veterans, and that his corporate leadership gives him the experience to bring about the management changes — in terms of accountability and transparency — that the VA needs," Sanders said.
The path for a bill to reform the VA is decidedly rockier.
The Senate approved a bill last month authorizing $35 billion through 2016 to build new clinics, hire doctors and make it easier for veterans who can't get prompt appointments with VA doctors to get outside care. The measure closely tracks a bill passed by the House, but lawmakers have balked at the Senate measure's price tag.
Congressional budget analysts project it could end up costing the government about $38 billion a year — almost as much as the $44 billion the government now spends annually on medical care for veterans.
On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid assailed his Republican colleagues, saying they appeared unwilling to spend the money needed to address a VA crisis involving prolonged treatment delays and falsified appointment records to cover up long wait times.
Reid said Monday that efforts to pass a bill appeared likely to "come back to nothing." On Tuesday he was more optimistic, citing work by Sanders and other senators
Asked if a Senate vote on the bill was likely before the August recess, Reid said, "I sure hope so."
Sanders said he and House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., were working hard to reach an agreement.
"Given the ideological differences between the House and the Senate, these are very tough negotiations, but I still hope and believe that we can come to an agreement" before Congress adjourns early next month, Sanders said.
Miller has said a temporary infusion of cash is needed to fix the VA's problems over the next two years, but a long-term solution requires a fundamental change in the way the department operates.
He said late Monday he was confident a deal is within reach if the two sides "remain focused on the issues that are within the scope" of the House and Senate-passed VA reform measures.