McDonald, who has been secretary for just over a month, spent his first weeks touring VA medical centers throughout the country — a homeless veterans outpost in Philadelphia and a new Veterans hospital in Las Vegas, among them — and talking with veterans at town hall meetings.
He said one man told him that he received a call for his father to enroll in VA care. The only problem: His father was buried by the VA 20 years ago.
“It’s very simple: What does the vet want?” McDonald said during a news conference at the VA headquarters, where he announced his plans. “We will see everything through the eyes of the veteran, through the lens of veterans. If we have work that doesn’t add value to the veteran, we’ll stop doing it and redeploy those assets to veterans.”
McDonald apologized more than six times for delays in treatment during the one-hour news conference. He also promised to “flatten” the power structure inside the country’s second-largest federal agency, which oversees a range of programs including GI Bill education and home-loan benefits to the largest health-care system in the country.
“Call me Bob, I’m Bob,” the secretary said, drawing a pyramid on the back of a placard that explained his reform plan. He wrote “veterans” at the top and put himself at the bottom. “We want an organization where everyone is called by the first name,” he said.
As proof of his accessibility, McDonald gave his cellphone number to reporters during the news conference.
The secretary also said the department has proposed disciplinary action against three senior employees at the Phoenix VA clinic where the record-keeping scandal first came to light.
“We are as impatient as you are,” McDonald said in regard to disciplinary actions. “But while investigations are going on, we are not allowed to take definitive action.”
Under a law Obama signed last month, the VA can quickly fire or demote senior executives for wrongdoing and performance problems. The employees have one week to appeal the decisions, and the Merit Systems Protection Board must issue a ruling within three weeks — much faster than its normal processing rate — or else the VA decision stands.
McDonald also said he will hold meetings every other week to ensure that the new reform bill is implemented.
The secretary’s short-term plan for fixing the VA medical network includes hiring more clinicians, building a climate where every employee can “be a whistleblower,” and replacing the VA’s ancient Web sites. He said there are 14 Web sites, for which veterans “need 14 different usernames and passwords” to obtain the services they need.
McDonald also said the VA needs to hire “tens of thousands” of medical professionals and that their pay needs to be on par with private-sector wages for the same work.
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said the new secretary is off to a good start.
“This hands-on leadership and strategic plan is exactly what the VA needs after a summer of scandal and broken trust,” said IAVA chief executive and founder Paul Rieckhoff. “But there is still a very, very long road ahead before IAVA members see a real turnaround on the ground in their hometowns. The VA’s trust with veterans has been badly broken.”