Veterans

VA reform plans at risk as White House slow to fill top leadership posts

More than two months since he took office, President Joe Biden still hasn’t named nominees for most of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ top leadership posts or given a timeline for when those appointments might occur.

The delay risks jeopardizing the administration’s plans for reform and improvements at the department, although VA Secretary Denis McDonough insists that the absence of permanent senior leaders has not had any negative impact on operations thus far.

“I have great confidence in the professionals I have met through my first days as secretary,” he told reporters during a press conference on Friday. “They surely have the capacity and experience.”

McDonough was announced as Biden’s pick to lead VA in December and confirmed less than three weeks after Biden took office. Since then, however, there has been no public announcements about department leadership.

Among the spots without nominees are the second-highest ranking post in VA (filled currently by acting Deputy VA Secretary Carolyn Clancy), the top VA health official (filled currently by Acting VA Under Secretary for Health Richard Stone), the top VA benefits official (filled currently by acting Veterans Benefits Administration head Thomas Murphy) and the top VA memorial affairs official (filled currently by acting National Cemetery Administration Ron Walters.)

Six other assistant secretary posts are also currently being manned by acting officials, awaiting Senate-confirmed permanent replacements.

White House officials declined comment on the delay and said no personnel decisions are imminent. In 2017, Trump similarly nominated his VA secretary pick (David Shulkin) shortly after becoming president but waited nearly five months before naming other VA leadership candidates, prompting similar concerns and criticism from advocates.

Of the open spots, the head of VA health affairs has been the most problematic in recent years. Despite launching multiple commissions to interview and suggest candidates for the job — and despite a global pandemic that demanded massive changes to VA health care operations — President Donald Trump never officially nominated anyone for the post.

Stone has served as executive in charge and acting under secretary for the Veterans Health Administration for nearly three years, providing stability in the role despite the lack of a Senate-confirmed, permanent appointee.

Department officials earlier this month announced another commission to review possible candidates for the role, which oversees more than 1,200 medical sites and more than 7 million veterans receiving regular health care through VA.

When asked if Stone would be considered for the post, McDonough said he would be considered among other candidates.

“We’re making sure that we get high-quality candidates that represent the great strength and diversity of this country,” the secretary said. “I anticipate, in the relatively near term, we’ll have someone there.”

Advocates have praised McDonough’s work thus far but also pushed for White House officials to nominate more veterans — potentially ones from the current wars, and women and minorities— to help better carry out the administration’s stated goal of improving outreach to the entire veterans community.

McDonough is only the second VA secretary to take the job without any previous military experience. Stone and Murphy both served; Clancy and Walters did not.

The process from nomination to swearing in typically takes about two months. In some cases, where an in-demand position is being filled by a popular nominee, the confirmation work can be completed in as little as a month. Other times, in the case of controversial nominees, the process can stretch for six months or longer.

Veterans Affairs isn’t the only department where the slow pace of nominations has raised concerns from outside groups. At the Department of Defense. Biden still has yet to announce a slew of top leadership posts, including the new civilian service secretaries and numerous assistant secretary posts.

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