Few government officials in Washington face a more difficult — or more important — job than the new secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Robert A. McDonald.
As a West Point graduate and former top executive at Procter & Gamble, McDonald would appear to have the tools he’ll need to get the job done. And it needs to be done quickly.
The VA is the nation’s largest integrated health network, operating more than 1,700 facilities and serving more than 8 million veterans a year. It has 300,000 employees and its budget is $154 billion a year.
In short, under the best of circumstances the person running the VA faces a huge challenge. But the circumstances have been bad for far too long.
Once he’d decided to act earlier this year, President Barack Obama surprisingly selected McDonald to succeed the embattled Eric Shinseki when it had become painfully evident the agency needed new leadership.
Late last week the president’s office released a report that described the VA under Shinseki — a much-admired former general — as being impeded by a “corrosive management culture” and “a lack of responsiveness and an inability to effectively manage or communicate.”
By then, of course, as one outrage after another was reported in the press, the whole country had long been painfully aware of the multitude of problems the VA seemed incapable of managing.
There were multiple disturbing disclosures about the agency’s ineptitude or indifference to veterans’ problems. It was no surprise, therefore, that Obama finally had no alternative but to request Shinseki’s resignation.
However, the president’s choice of McDonald to succeed Shinseki caught some close observers of the VA off guard.
“This is definitely a surprising pick,” Paul Reickhoff, the chief executive of a group called Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, commented. “His background (with Procter & Gamble) may prove helpful because there are few organizations in America with a worse reputation toward customers than the VA right now.”
But Reickhoff offered a word of caution, too. McDonald, he noted, has been out of the military for so long that “he’ll have to move quickly to show he is committed to and understands the post-9/11 generation of veterans.”
In a speech Saturday, McDonald acknowledged the problems that have undermined the agency’s reputation: Attempts to “game the system” in order to hide problems and a culture that failed to protect those in the system who spoke out about its failures.
“We serve veterans. … If we fail at serving veterans, we fail,” he declared. “We have a lot of work to do.”
His goal, he said, is to not only focus the VA more sharply on its customers’ needs but also to measure its success “against a single metric … customer outcomes, veteran outcomes, what’s good for the veterans.”
In the meantime, the president last week signed a $16 billion bill that will expand access to health care for veterans and hand McDonald the authority he’ll need to rid the VA of employees who are not doing their jobs properly.
Importantly, the measure also will enable veterans’ hospitals to add more doctors and nurses to their overworked staffs. Perhaps even more significant, the new law makes it possible for veterans to get medical help from outside the VA’s system if that system is unable to promptly respond to their medical needs.
“The fastest, most up-to-date technology and systems are no substitute for looking at ourselves through the eyes of veterans,” McDonald conceded.
In recognizing that, McDonald is off to a good start. The nation will be watching, and wishing him well.
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