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VA Secretary Hits Back Against Lawmaker's Criticism

VA Secretary Robert McDonald
VA Secretary Robert McDonald

Sparks briefly flew during a congressional budget hearing on Wednesday when Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald fired back against a lawmaker's criticism that he is glossing over chronic problems at the agency.

McDonald took offense when Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colorado, blasted him over years of construction delays and cost overruns at VA facilities in Denver and elsewhere and told the secretary he was accomplishing nothing.

"At the end of the day, at the end of this president's term, you will not have made a difference in changing the culture of this organization by virtue of the fact you continue to gloss over its problems," Coffman said.

In a departure from the low-key, no-offense-taken manner in which his predecessor, Secretary Eric Shinseki, took criticism, however, McDonald jabbed back at Coffman.

"Actually, I've been here six months. You've been here longer than I have. If there's a problem in Denver, I think you own it more than I do," McDonald said. Minutes later, when Coffman sought to interrupt him, McDonald pointed out: "I've run a large company, sir. What have you done?"

McDonald appeared before the House Veterans Affairs Committee to make a case for the VA's proposed $169 billion budget for fiscal 2016, which includes about $73.5 billion in discretionary funds and about $95 billion in mandatory spending, including for veterans' benefits programs. Discretionary spending, which includes money for health care, equipment purchases and construction projects, is about $5 billion higher than in the 2015 budget.

McDonald's responses were in marked contrast to those offered by Shinseki, a career soldier and former Army chief of staff before taking over the VA in 2009. Shinseki routinely let criticisms directed against him roll off his back, defending the institution and its employees even when conceding its problems.

McDonald is a 1975 graduate of West Point and served as a captain with the 82nd Airborne Division. He made his career in the private sector, including running consumer products giant Procter & Gamble.

He came out of retirement to serve as VA secretary when Shinseki resigned after a patient wait-times scandal that broke out of the VA hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, was found to be a systemic problem across the agency.

Dozens of veterans who were on secret or unauthorized wait lists died before getting an appointment, and the VA's Office of the Inspector General told lawmakers that delays in care contributed to the deaths.

The VA continued to come under fire from lawmakers and veterans groups as the department seemed unable or unwilling to discipline officials linked to the problem hospitals.

But according to Ian de Planque, legislative director for the American Legion, McDonald has made serious headway in rebuilding communication and trust with veterans groups.

"Last year, it was like an armed camp -- nobody wanted to talk to anybody else," he told Military.com on Wednesday. The situation reached its lowest point in late summer, he said, when VA Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs Joan Mooney was brought in to testify against the backdrop of a congressional investigation showing that information was falsified to hide excessive wait times.   "The VA was not answering any congressional requests. ... It was very difficult from that point on," de Planque said.

McDonald has made himself more accessible, and he's trying to make everyone in the VA bureaucracy become more accessible.

"With a bureaucracy as large as the VA, that takes a while," de Planque said.

The Legion legislative director said McDonald "has a lot of fire and a lot of passion," and that was evident in his exchange with Coffman.

"There are still problems with the VA, but what's different now is he [McDonald] is attempting to [resolve] the problems. ... He's going to solve this," de Planque said.

Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, who has never been slow to criticize the VA, credited McDonald with "boldly" tackling the VA's aging infrastructure and for presenting a realistic budget request to address its problem construction projects.

But Miller told the VA's top executive that he does take issues with a proposal to move around some of the $10 billion that Congress appropriated the department late last year to deal with a number of problems.

Miller is against any such reallocations, calling it "a non-starter."

"If there is to be any reallocation, it will be to further improve and strengthen the program itself and not to address other, unspecified needs," he said.

McDonald has said he needs to be able to reallocate some of the money in the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act to address areas that need additional funding. He said veteran demand to go outside the VA for health care is turning out not to be as great as originally anticipated, so some of the money approved for that could be used elsewhere.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com.

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