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5 Questions for VA Secretary Nominee Bob McDonald

9:50 AM, Jul 21, 2014 • By PETE HEGSETH
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Can Robert McDonald, the former Procter & Gamble CEO tapped by President Obama to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, turn things around at the famously troubled department?

Robert McDonald

Dennis Brack/Newscom

McDonald’s boosters say his executive experience will be a boon to the struggling VA, where a cascade of scandals have laid bare the department’s corrosive culture of mismanagement, dysfunction and corruption. As a critic of the department’s failures, I’m cautiously optimistic that McDonald’s private sector background can bring a fresh perspective to addressing the VA’s challenges.

Of course, transforming the VA is going to be larger than any one person—it will require a sustained commitment to change, coupled with aggressive oversight. But the right leader at the head of the department can play a key role in setting the proper priorities for that transformation to occur.

Could McDonald be that leader for the VA? As he goes before the Senate for his confirmation hearing this week, he needs to demonstrate a clear commitment to doing what needs to be done to restore the department to its mission of customer service. Here are five key questions veterans want to see addressed:

1) There’s a bipartisan consensus that repairing the VA will require holding the department’s employees accountable for their performance. How will you make use of new accountability tools—like the ability to fire poor performers—to get results for veterans?

McDonald must choose a side: Will he weigh in on the side of veterans and taxpayers, or on the side of VA bureaucrats? His predecessor was too solicitous of the bureaucracy and thus failed to bring the jolt of change the department needs. McDonald must make the case, derived from his private sector experience, that pruning underperforming executives will create an environment where the most committed employees can truly excel.

2) Thanks to the efforts of Sen. John McCain and other Congressional leaders, veterans who face long wait times or live at a distance from VA facilities will have greater choice to seek private care outside the VA system. How will you protect veterans’ medical choices, given that the bureaucracy will likely seek to undermine these provisions?

Here, one hopes to hear that McDonald understands the promise of patient choice, which will allow for greater competition and improved service to veterans who lack ready access to VA facilities. As a retired CEO, McDonald could be an eloquent and knowledgeable advocate for greater freedom of choice in VA health care. He should assure senators that he is prepared to fight to defend this initiative.

3) The VA has a serious whistleblower problem: employees who point out wrongdoing have testified to being targeted for harassment, intimidation and retribution. What do you intend to do to change this?

On this question, McDonald should make it perfectly clear that whistleblowers who bring credible allegations about department failures will receive protection—and that those who attempt to intimidate or punish truth-tellers will face the most serious consequences, including termination. Full stop.

4) The VA budget has grown by leaps and bounds in the last half decade (it’s the second largest budget in the federal government), and waste is rampant, yet the department bureaucracy continues to claim that it suffers from inadequate funding. What will you do to ensure the VA’s current budget is invested wisely? 

The VA has squandered millions upon millions on undeserved executive bonuses, wasteful conference spending, hush money settlements paid out to wronged patients—the list goes on. McDonald should make a serious commitment to focusing on getting more out of the VA’s $168 billion annual budget. While it’s expected that the patient choice reforms will require additional investment, McDonald should reassure Congress and taxpayers that he’s seriously committed to getting the most bang for the VA’s buck. 

5) Trust in the VA is at an all-time low, thanks to the various scandals surrounding falsified waiting lists, destruction of records and dishonest progress reports. How will you work to restore trust in the department’s reporting to Congress and the public? 

Improved service to veterans begins with an honest accounting. McDonald should make it clear that restoring integrity to VA recordkeeping and reporting is a top priority.

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