Robert McDonald won confirmation on Tuesday to serve as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, with the Senate voting unanimously to approve him as the agency’s next head.
McDonald inherits a giant bureaucracy reeling from a scandal that involved hiding of treatment delays at VA medical centers and retaliation against whistleblowers who tried to report wrongdoing.
During his confirmation hearing last week, McDonald laid out a series of actions he would take during his first 90 days in office to “deliver the needed reforms our veterans deserve.” Below are the initiatives he outlined.
McDonald said he will ensure that the VA can “regularly and accurately produce key data for decision-makers and oversight entities,” addressing one of the key issues behind the agency’s recent scheduling scandal. Official reports have cited the VA for manipulating medical-appointment and benefits records, giving the false impression that offices are meeting their goals.
Government leaders cannot fix problems without knowing problems exist, so data integrity will be critical to improving services for veterans.
The Office of Special Counsel, a small federal agency that protects whistleblowers, has said it is investigating 67 claims of retaliation against VA employees who tried to expose problems. Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner testified at a hearing this month that the list of complaints is growing “pretty much daily.”
McDonald said he will encourage VA employees to report problems, and that he will develop a system to reward whistleblowers for stepping forward with legitimate concerns. “I have much to learn about the organization, and I look forward to gaining valuable insights from its employees, as well as veterans and other stakeholders,” he said.
McDonald promised to “renew the department’s strategic plan and ensure it is properly deployed.” He said that by visiting field offices, he will be able to determine which processes need to be “reorganized and streamlined.” He also said he would ensure that every employee has an action plan that “rolls up to the strategic plan and the mission for the department.”
Additionally, McDonald pledged to “put the veteran at the center of everything that we do” and lay out a leadership vision directly to all VA employees.
White House adviser Rob Nabors said in a report to President Obama last month that the VA headquarters is out of touch with the agency’s regional and field offices, and vice versa. “The communication and decision-making between the central office and regional offices must be radically restructured,” he said.
McDonald has pledged to improve communications between the offices. He offered few specifics except to say he plans to “travel extensively over the first several months to hear directly from employees, veterans and other stakeholders.”
VA officials have told the agency’s oversight committees that the agency may need to hire more staff and shift some employees between divisions or facilities to improve access to care. That means some medical centers may have too few employees, while others may have too many.
McDonald suggested he will review staffing levels and “take advantage of VA’s scale to improve productivity and flow more people to the work.”
Board of physicians
The future secretary said he plans to establish a board of physicians to advise him on best practices for delivering quality care in a timely fashion.
McDonald said the VA needs to do a better job of forecasting trends in demand and develop a plan for dealing with those trends. “I will focus on reorganizing the department to more efficiently and more effectively use our resources to get care that the veterans deserve and have earned,” he said.
McDonald promised to “expand the use of digital technology to free human resources that can be applied more to the care of veterans.”
Veterans groups have called on the VA and Defense Department to share data more effectively. That’s because troops often struggle with continuity of care and benefits as they transition from the military to civilian life.
McDonald said he would work to ensure that the VA can create an integrated records system with the Defense Department.