Robert McDonald holds up a copy of the Veterans Affairs Strategic Plan Framework while testifying before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on July 22. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
It’s been a quick courtship for Bob McDonald — and there will be no honeymoon.
In less than a month, the 61-year-old McDonald has gone from relative obscurity within the veterans community to the man charged with saving the Veterans Affairs Department. The Senate voted 97-0 on Tuesday to confirm him as the new VA secretary, with marching orders to start that work right away.
McDonald already has outlined an ambitious 90-day plan for the start of his tenure: travel across the country, evaluations of regional officials, new digital management systems, outreach to whistleblowers.
But more than managing scandals and fixing office failures, McDonald’s biggest challenge is repairing public trust in VA after a litany of recent scandals. Here’s a look as his top priorities for that reclamation project:
New leadership team
At his Senate confirmation hearing, McDonald said his first move will be evaluating senior VA leaders “to get the right people on the bus and get them in the right seats on the bus.”
Right now, that bus has a lot of empty seats.
VA leadership includes 14 positions that require Senate confirmation, and 10 of them (including the secretary post) are being filled by acting officials. Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson, currently filling VA’s top spot, has said he will stay on through the transition, but many other top posts will be filled with McDonald’s choices in months to come.
The incoming secretary promised lawmakers he’ll be looking at staffing far beyond Washington, D.C., as well.
He has already planned a national video conference with VA sites nationwide to “lay out my leadership vision directly to all VA employees.” He told lawmakers he plans to spend much of his first months on the job “in the field,” hearing directly from VA employees and patients about problems and potential fixes.
“In a large organization, if something goes wrong or if something goes right, you need to learn from it,” he told senators. “You need to document it. And then you need to share it through the organization so it doesn’t happen again.”
Shortening wait times
Externally, the most pressing problem facing VA is still the veterans wait times scandal. The department still has 40,000 veterans nationwide waiting for medical appointments, even after a push in recent months to work them into doctors’ schedules.
McDonald said he plans to establish a physicians advisory board — including medical experts from outside VA — to advise on ways of “delivering timely and quality health care.” The former Procter & Gamble CEO has no background in health management, but has said he already has numerous volunteers from the field ready to assist in fixing the department.
He also has pledged to improve computer systems to tackle the wait times problem. That includes new systems to forecast where more physicians will be needed, and finding ways to automate tasks so employees’ time can be more focused on administering care to veterans.
In his capacity as acting secretary, Gibson has already begun pushing for $17.6 billion in new funding to pay for 10,000 new clinicians and new medical space leases in coming years, plans which McDonald said he supports.
The relationship between Congress and VA leadership has become increasingly prickly in recent months as the department’s scandals have mounted. But lawmakers have complained about a slow response and rocky relationship with VA officials for years.
The Republican-controlled House Veterans’ Affairs Committee lists 118 outstanding requests from its members about VA operations and policies, including three dating to 2012. Senators from both parties have offered similar complaints.
McDonald has promised better and more frequent communication with the legislative branch. Multiple times during his confirmation hearing, he promised to give his personal cell phone number to lawmakers, to use whenever they need it.
“When you run a large corporation globally, you have a cell phone that’s on 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and it gets called,” he said. “And so if you have concerns, I want to know about them and I want to react to them.”
That small gesture won over several senators, who noted that previous VA secretaries have not made the same offer.
Senators asked McDonald point-blank why he — or anyone — would want to take over the VA post right now, given all the problems facing the department.
“I desperately want this job, because I think I can make a difference,” he responded. “I think there’s no higher calling. This is an opportunity for me to make a difference in the lives of the veterans who I care so deeply about.”
But while he enters VA with enthusiasm, McDonald also acknowledged that the morale throughout the department “may not be very high right now.”
McDonald promised not only to hold underperforming employees accountable — senators have demanded some firings to show the department is serious about integrity — but also creating a better work environment throughout VA.
He wants VA resources for “cutting-edge” medical work, and new technology innovations to continue. He promised an easier pipeline for employee complaints and “learning organization” culture.
“VA has made great strides in serving veterans thanks to the commitment of many dedicated employees and the hard work with our partners and advocates in the community,” he said.
“But the VA is in crisis. The veterans are in need. There is much to do.”