Robert McDonald: VA will ‘get beyond its present difficulties’

The new secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs told members of the nation’s largest veterans service organization Tuesday in Charlotte that the agency faces a critical moment in history, and he then outlined ways he expects to fix the problems.

Robert McDonald, who was confirmed by the Senate on July 29, addressed the American Legion 96th National Convention shortly after President Barack Obama spoke at the Charlotte Convention Center.

The VA has come under fire after a scandal over reports of lengthy patient waiting times at many VA hospitals and clinics and falsified appointment records.

McDonald, a West Point graduate and former chief executive at Proctor & Gamble, was nominated to the secretary’s post by Obama.

McDonald repeated the key points from the president’s speech, calling for eliminating the claims backlog; ending veteran homelessness; better mental health care and support; encouraging companies to hire veterans; increasing educational opportunities and recruiting medical professionals to better serve veterans.

“I’m here to promise you that VA will get beyond its present difficulties and be the stronger for it,” McDonald said.

“From here on, we want veterans to know that when they walk through the VA’s doors, employees are ‘all in’ when it comes to meeting our mission, living our values and keeping veterans first and foremost,” he said. “Without that, there can be no trust.”

McDonald said the VA has reached out to more than 266,000 veterans to get them off waiting lists and into clinics sooner. In the last two months, he said, the VA made nearly 912,000 referrals for veterans to receive care in the private sector.

The number of people waiting for appointments has declined by 57 percent since May 15, he said. Also, VA facilities are adding more clinic hours, recruiting to fill physician vacancies, deploying mobile medical units and using temporary staffing to provide more care to veterans more quickly.

Since May 1, the VA has taken more than 30 personnel actions and more than 100 investigations are ongoing.

McDonald said two members of the senior executive service have resigned or retired; three more members of the senior executive service have been placed on administrative leave, pending the results of investigations; and more than two dozen health care personnel have been removed from their positions.

Citing communication as a key, McDonald said he’s making the rounds of VA medical centers to get at the “on-the-ground truth.” He’ll be in Durham later this week.

McDonald said the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 authorizes $15 billion to the VA for such things as hiring physicians and other medical staff and improving infrastructure.

The agenda for improving the VA is ambitious, but McDonald said “it can be done with the American Legion’s help and the support of all VSOs (veteran service organizations).”

Some Legionnaires reacted cautiously to the new secretary’s remarks.

“I think he’s a sincere gentleman and believe he wants to make things better,” said Marty Conatser of Champaign, Ill. “He’s shown the ability to evaluate, plan and execute. He’s always been successful. And I hope he’ll be successful at the VA. But I don’t know if he totally understands the depth of the problems.”

Gerald Lynch of Canton, Ga., gave McDonald two thumbs up. “He was great and upbeat,” Lynch said. “I believe him.”