President Obama's nominee to lead the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs said he will work to establish integrity at an agency where investigations have found that directors manipulated the health care system, leading to veterans' suffering and, in some cases, death.
Members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee lined up Tuesday to ask Robert A. McDonald, a West Point graduate and former chief executive officer at Procter & Gamble, how he plans to fix a VA riddled with problems that have put thousands of veterans at risk.
The common question from the senators in attendance was not whether he was the right candidate but why McDonald would want to take on such a massive task after recently stepping down after 33 years at Procter & Gamble.
McDonald, who graduated from West Point in 1975 and served five years in the Army, told the committee members that his "life's purpose has been to improve the lives of others." "I will put the veteran at the center of all we do," McDonald said. "If confirmed, on day one, I will lay out my leadership vision directly to all VA employees on a national video and with all VA sites."
McDonald was nominated by President Obama to take over the VA following the resignation of Eric Shinseki, who stepped down amid a series of ongoing and new problems, including a continued backlog of compensation claims, a rise in veteran suicides and, more recently, veteran deaths linked to systemic manipulation of patient appointment records.
At the VA Medical Center in Arizona, investigators confirmed that 35 veterans on a secret wait list for appointments died before seeing a doctor.
In what can often serve as contentious debates between lawmakers and the nominees, Republicans and Democrats heaped praise on McDonald, with some more quick to criticize their own institution than question his qualifications for the job.
"For me, it's not a question of what are you going to do," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia. "It's a question of what we are going to do [to help you fix the VA]. My fear is what we will do as a Congress to support you so that we're not just blathering bromides of good feeling and good will sympathizing with the veterans but then putting out no money to do something."
Panel chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, asked McDonald why someone who doesn't need the job, and who already has had a successful career, would want to take on the deeply troubled and controversial VA and deal with a Congress dysfunctional from partisan politics.
"I desperately want this job because I think I can make a difference," McDonald said.
McDonald pledged to find and hold accountable anyone who deliberately falsified patient data -- a systemic problem revealed in May that has been linked to veteran deaths. He also promised to be more cooperative with Congress.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, ranking member of the committee, asked McDonald if he would "vow" to provide lawmakers with information and documents they request within a reasonable time. Burr long criticized the VA under Shinseki for stonewalling on information and providing incomplete data.
McDonald said he would give each member of the committee his personal cell phone number, and that they should feel free to call him directly if they have problems getting information from the department.
McDonald also promised lawmakers he would continue to work on three priorities established by Shinseki: ending the backlog, ending chronic homelessness among veterans, and improving services to women veterans.
But in his first 90 days on the job, he plans to travel the country to visit with VA officials and staff in the field while also putting together a leadership team.
He offered no details about the team or when it would be in place.
"It always takes too long to get the right leadership team, but it's the first thing you have to do," he said.
The Senate committee will vote Wednesday whether to send McDonald's nomination to the full Senate for a vote.
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.