WASHINGTON — Senators considering the nomination of former corporate executive Robert McDonald to take over the Department of Veterans Affairs Tuesday had little to say about him, but plenty to say about the failings of the bureaucracy he would be expected to fix.
"I asked him why he wanted to come into this job in this very, very difficult moment, and what he said was, 'The president asked me to serve and to do well by my country, and I accept that challenge,'" Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said, adding that McDonald is well aware of the department's problems.
Sanders chairs the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said McDonald needs to "embrace the findings" of investigations into VA care, and to work quickly to make the changes need to fix those problems.
"The seriousness of this moment demands urgent action, and, if confirmed, I pledge to this committee and to our nation's veterans, to take a series of immediate actions over the first 90 days to deliver the needed reforms our veterans deserve," McDonald told the committee. "I will put the veteran at the center of all we do, consistent with our mission."
Recent investigations have shown VA manipulated appointment books to make it look as if veterans hadn't been waiting long for care, decades-long appeals backlogs for 350,000 older veterans, and a veterans' suicide death rate of 22 people a day--some as they wait for access to VA care.
Sanders added veterans' homelessness to the list.
"But that's another problem that you're going to fix," he said.
The revelations led the former secretary, Gen. Eric Shinseki, to resign in May. There had been high expectations of his term as VA secretary because of his reputation as a calm, methodical leader in the military.
Lawmakers and veterans' service organizations have expressed hope for a fresh start with a relative outsider — McDonald graduated from the Army's West Point Military Academy before serving as CEO of Proctor & Gamble. However, he has no political experience.
Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson mentioned the nomination during a speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars annual convention Tuesday, saying that the two have been friends for 40 years after being enrolled as cadets together at West Point.
"He brings strong leadership and exceptional management skills to this role, and he's got one of the strongest moral compasses I have ever seen," Gibson said. "This combination of executive skills and values are ideal for VA at this critical time."
If confirmed, McDonald will inherit, in addition to high backlogs and wait times, Gibson's $17.6 billion budget request. Gibson said that money could be used over the next three years to modernize VA health systems, hire 10,000 additional health care providers and end the wait times and appeals backlog.
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb, said that McDonald's management experience may be "exactly what the VA needs. But he added that VA has made promises before, and that he's concerned about the large budget request.
"I can't believe that just throwing more money at the VA is the answer," he said.
But Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W.V., said Congress also needs to own the problem.
"For me, it isn't just a question of what you're going to do," he said, "It's a question of what we're going to do."
He said VA lacks a good IT infrastructure, needs more providers and must provider better training.
"I have a fear about what we will do to support you," he said, explaining that VA will need a bigger budget. "You cannot hire people without paying for it. You can not build things without paying for it."
Lawmakers have said they expect a vote on his nomination before August recess.