Robert McDonald, a West Point graduate and Army airborne vet who went on to lead one of the most successful companies in the U.S., was swiftly confirmed on Tuesday to head the Department of Veterans Affairs.
McDonald, the 61-year-old former chief executive officer of the consumer products giant Procter & Gamble Co., was unanimously approved by a Senate vote of 97 to 0. He takes over from Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson, who was appointed to the job in May following the resignation of Eric Shinseki amid a scandal involving dozens of vets placed on secret lists who died while awaiting treatment.
Veteran service groups hailed the appointment.
"The VFW looks forward to working with him and his team as they fix what's broken, hold employees appropriately accountable to the maximum extent of the law, and restore the faith of veterans in their VA," VFW National Commander John Stroud said in a statement.
With McDonald now in place, lawmakers are pressing to pass bipartisan legislation to reform the agency before Congress adjourns for its August recess on Friday.The bill, which includes about $17 billion in new and offset funds to improve access to care for veterans, would make it easier for the secretary to fire senior officials deemed to be incompetent or mismanaging their departments.
Lawmakers from both parties demanded that the secretary position have that kind of clout following revelations that officials at VA hospitals across the country manipulated data to conceal the fact they could not make timely appointments for veterans in need of care.
Tuesday's Senate vote on McDonald was not surprising given the bipartisan support voiced during McDonald's confirmation hearing last week. Then, Republican and Democrat lawmakers offered unqualified support of McDonald, with many expressing the hope that he would use the management skills he honed at P&G to whip the agency into shape.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, made that argument Tuesday in the lead up to the confirmation vote. "He will bring the tools of a CEO at a private corporation to the VA, a huge bureaucracy which needs significant improvements in accountability and in management," he said.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, also emphasized the need for a strong manager at the agency, noting that Shinseki "was actually insulated from a lot of information [about problems] going on in his own department by the senior leadership ... which had become comfortable, passive and not active in the operations of VA medical service."
Isakson added, "I am confident that Bob McDonald will be an outstanding Secretary [of VA] and I commend him to my fellow senators with my highest recommendation in the hopes he will be approved unanimously."
As investigators confirmed evidence of long wait times and other problems affecting veterans seeking treatment, the agency came under fire from both Democrats and Republicans. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, the Senate minority leader, even stated that attempts by regional VA officials to cover up the long wait times were proof of "the Obama administration [trying] to cover its tracks."
In addition to advocating for McDonald's confirmation on Tuesday Senate lawmakers also pushed for the conference committee legislation they say he will need in order to make fixes at the VA.
In addition to giving the secretary greater power to fire managers, the package includes $10 billion to fund a "Veterans Choice Fund" -- making it easier for veterans to seek treatment from non-VA and private healthcare providers. For example, vets who live more than 40 miles from an agency facility will have the option of getting care at a qualified community-based hospital, or medical center receiving federal funding – including military bases or those of the Indian Health Service.
The bill also includes $5 billion to be used to hire additional doctors, nurses, mental health professionals and other medical staff, as well as to enter into leases at 27 major medical facilities in 18 states and Puerto Rico.
The compromise bill also includes about $2 billion in various veterans-related provisions, including providing services to victims of military sexual assault, extending Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits to the spouses of fallen troops, and guaranteeing in-state tuition to veterans and eligible dependents regardless of where they attend school or their home of record.
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at email@example.com
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