Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald on Friday encouraged student veterans to join his agency as it tries to improve customer service and recover from the biggest scandal in its history.
“If you want to be a part of the VA when you get out of school, come talk to us,” he told a packed house of 1,200 attendees at the three-day Student Veterans of America conference in San Antonio. He then gave out his e-mail.
It’s all part of a new initiative called “My VA,” a massive reorganization of the agency after a scandal last summer that involved widespread falsification of patient wait times.
McDonald, who took over the agency after details of the scandal emerged, has vowed to hire 28,000 medical staff to help ease the problems with treatment delays. He said he has visited 17 medical schools across the country.
“Come work for us,” he told a student in social work, who went up to the microphone during a question and answer session. “Join the VA — help fix us.”
The secretary also outlined an effort to transform VA into “the best customer service organization in the world.” As the former CEO of Procter and Gamble, he said he is tapping friends in the corporate world, from Disney to the Ritz Carlton, for advice.
“Have you ever heard of anyone having a bad experience at Disney?” he asked. “I don’t think so.”
McDonald said he would try to learn lessons from the Ritz Carlton’s customer service school, which he also plans to approach for help.
“I’m going to be using all of my connections,” he said.
McDonald said the VA would soon announce the appointment of a “chief customer service officer” who hails from the McDonald’s fast-food corporation.
In the dynamic 90-minute meeting, he had his office take down specific names of students and the clinics they were having problems in.
“We don’t hide from you,” he told the students, mentioning how he gave out his cellphone number after The Washington Post asked for it at his first national news conference in September.
The speech comes before Vice President Biden and his wife, Jill, will address the VA, a sign that the Obama administration is focusing on the transition of former troops coming home, officials say.
While students said they liked McDonald’s energy and humor — at one point he showed a picture of himself as a geeky teenager — they said they weren’t sure whether he could actually tackle all of the VA’s problems.
Former Army specialist Nusaybah Craft, 26, now a student at Texas Christian University, said the generation of young Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who attended the conference have a “love-hate relationship with the VA.”
“Hopefully there will be more love — eventually,” Craft said. “For now, it’s ‘Let’s wait and see.’ “