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Rebutting Trump, VA Secretary Defends Improvements as 'Well Underway'

In this photo taken Feb. 25, 2016, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald speaks in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
In this photo taken Feb. 25, 2016, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald speaks in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Before Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump took the stage Tuesday at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald made an impassioned defense of the department and argued that its transformation was "well underway."

McDonald, a former Army captain who ran the consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble before becoming secretary in July 2014, didn't mention Trump by name, but he clearly took aim at his plan to "reform" the department.

"You've heard many times that VA is broken," McDonald said at the event in Charlotte, North Carolina. "So I'll answer one question: Can the Department of Veterans Affairs be fixed? Can it be transformed? The answer is yes. Absolutely. Not only can it be transformed, transformation is well underway -- and we're already seeing results."

Citing positive-trending statistics on everything from veteran homelessness to access to care, the secretary sought to highlight how the department was in the process of making sweeping change and improving the lives of those who had served in the military.

For example, McDonald said the number of homeless veterans nationwide has decreased by more than a third -- 36 percent -- since 2000, with two unnamed states "effectively" ending the problem and Los Angeles reporting particularly strong declines. He didn't cite actual population figures, though the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2015 reported some 48,000 veterans across the country were homeless.

Similarly, McDonald said the department has whittled down its one-time backlog of claims of 611,000 almost 90 percent by increasing staff, adjusting policies and implementing an automated filing system. He also cited his fact-finding trips to VA medical centers in places like Phoenix, where veterans were placed on secret wait lists to cover up delays in care.

McDonald said almost all appointments -- 97 percent -- are now completed within a month of a veteran's preferred date and signaled a seemingly significant change slated to take effect later this year.

"You should know that average wait time for primary care is around five days, six days for specialty care, and two days for mental health care," he said. "And by December, you can expect same day access in primary care and same day access in mental health care."

The secretary also took aim at criticism from lawmakers such as Rep. Jeff Miller, a Republican from Florida and chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, who have highlighted cases in which the department was unable to fire under-performing employees, including executives who abused their positions.

"Some claim there's no accountability at VA," he said. Don't think we hold people accountable? Tell that to the VA employee in Augusta, Georgia, recently convicted of falsifying health care records. He's facing sentencing that could include years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines. All told, we've terminated over 3,750 employees in two years."

At the same time, McDonald acknowledged the limitations of such a management approach.

"Some people think everything will be fine if we fire more people, more quickly," he said. "It's not true. We can't fire our way to excellence. Over my 33 years in the private sector, I've never encountered an organization where firing people was a measure of leadership."

During his speech, McDonald also rapped House lawmakers for failing to fully fund the VA's $183 billion budget request for fiscal 2017 beginning Oct. 1, the media for "embellishing" stories and, in an indirect rebuttal of Trump, conservatives who want to give veterans more choice in seeking private health care.

"Now, you'll hear lots more recommendations about VA's future," he said. "Some have argued VA can best serve veterans by shutting down VA health care altogether. They argue that closing [Veterans Health Administration] is the 'bold transformation' veterans and families need, want, and deserve. I suspect that proposal serves some parties somewhere pretty well.

"But it's not transformational -- it's more along the lines of dereliction," he added. "It doesn't serve veterans well, and it doesn't sit well with me. So make sure there's substance to those discussions -- that they're about veterans' interests, and not something else. Make sure they're anchored to the service and sacrifice -- the sense of duty and honor -- that veterans represent, and only veterans understand. It's your VA. It always has been."

-- Brendan McGarry can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.

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