Senate leaders from both parties signaled support for Robert McDonald, President Barack Obama’s nominee for secretary of the Veterans Affairs Department, at his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, though political consensus has not emerged on how best to bolster the troubled department.
“The seriousness of this moment demands action, and if confirmed, I pledge to the committee, and to our nation’s veterans, to take a series of immediate actions over the first 90 days to deliver the needed reforms our veterans deserve,” McDonald said in the hearing. “I will put the veteran at the center of everything we do.”
While Democratic and Republican senators called for an expeditious confirmation process for McDonald, the monthlong conference negotiations about comprehensive VA reform have seen partisan divisions.
The most controversial aspect of the VA legislation is a funding provision of a Senate bill authored by Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., that would hire additional doctors and provide money for 26 additional medical facilities.
The House and Senate VA legislation allows veterans to seek care in the private sector, another expensive proposition. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated the cost of these reforms at around $30 billion.
A number of Republicans have said additional money would not fix cultural deficiencies at the VA, and believe the department can work more efficiently without further resources.
“As we have seen, the VA has failed our veterans even with the increases in funding,” said Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb, referring to past VA budget increases.
On Monday, Sanders, the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, agreed to offset some of his funding provisions, but gave no specific details.
“These are very tough negotiations but I still hope and believe that we can come to an agreement,” Sanders said in a statement late Monday.
Since late May, a number of damning reports have documented systemic problems at the VA, including inadequate care, long wait times for patients, and retaliation against whistleblowers.
The scathing allegations, which documented scheduling problems nationwide, led VA secretary Eric Shinseki to resign May 30. Obama nominated McDonald in late June, calling him “an expert at making organizations better.”
McDonald, a graduate of the West Point Military Academy, served as an Army Ranger in the 82nd Airborne Division. McDonald comes from a military family; among his veteran relatives are his father, who fought in World War II.
After serving, McDonald joined Procter & Gamble, a multinational consumer goods corporation, where he worked for 33 years. As CEO of P&G, McDonald had major economic success and oversaw more than 120,000 employees.
McDonald spoke about the important VA care his family has received and pledged to bring some of his successful tactics from the private sector to the VA.
He promised to recruit doctors aggressively, champion transparency and ensure efficiency through technological updates.
“(Technology) would allow us to release some people and some resources and flow them to the mission, which is to care for veterans,” McDonald said.
Sanders said it was likely McDonald’s nomination would pass out of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee sometime Tuesday, and a full Senate vote would happen before the August recess.
Sanders also reiterated his hope that House and Senate leaders would agree to a set of VA reforms before the monthlong break.
“I hope we’ll be able to provide you with the emergency help that you need to deal with the immediate crisis of waiting periods for veterans,” Sanders said to McDonald at the end of the hearing. “And I hope also that we are going to give you the resources you need to get the doctors and nurses and other personnel that you need.”
Jasper Craven is affiliated with the Boston University Journalism Program.MORE IN Vermont News
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