Monday, June 30, 2014

Stepping Into The Fire: Veteran Advocates & Pols Sound Off On Obama's Choice To Lead Scandal-Plagued VA

Robert McDonald is Obama's pick to run VA
Unnamed White House officials have told USA Today and other news organizations that President Obama will nominate former Procter & Gamble executive Robert McDonald today as the next secretary of the embattled Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). If approved by the Senate, and that seems likely, McDonald would replace Eric Shinseki, the retired four-star general who resigned a month ago amid a firestorm of controversy over shocking reports that veterans died waiting to be seen by a doctor, and that management at VA hospitals and clinics falsified veteran wait times, according to multiple whistleblowers inside VA.

The expected announcement later today comes just three days after Rob Nabors, a White House staffer assigned to address VA's problems, issued a review to the president concluding that the agency has “a corrosive culture” that has affected care for veterans. 

“The problems inherent within an agency with an extensive field structure are exacerbated by poor management and communication structures, distrust between some VA employees and management, a history of retaliation toward employees raising issues, and a lack of accountability across all grade levels,” the report said.

Corruption and unethical behavior are reportedly rampant among VA's mid-level management. As for the hundreds of thousands of workers at VA who are dedicated to helping veterans every day, morale is said to be at an all-time low.

Is McDonald the right man to clean up this mess? A 61-year-old West Point graduate and Army captain, McDonald reportedly worked his way from entry-level employee to CEO at Procter & Gamble over the course of three decades. He's a surprise pick, but some observers believe his combined military leadership/corporate management background make him uniquely qualified to lead the agency. 

Phillip Carter of the Center for a New American Security told the Washington Post that Obama's choice of McDonald "suggests a real focus on customer satisfaction, as opposed to what you might get from a retired general or medical leader. It is probably a wise choice given the concerns right now of veterans.”

A White House statement not surprisingly described McDonald as the "perfect person to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs during this important time." 

But some veteran advocates are skeptical.

"I have a great deal of respect for McDonalds’ accomplishments over the years, but I don’t believe he understands the internal problems of VA," said Thomas Bandzul, legislative counsel for Veterans and Military Families for Progress and past associate counsel for Veterans for Common Sense. "And by the time he does appreciate the complexities and comes up with a strategy, the next president will already be elected."

Bandzul said he can’t see the relevance of McDonald's West Point degree, "or how an O-3 from the Army will have much of an impact when he’s replacing a war General and combat soldier. VA needs a person who isn’t afraid to swing an ax to chop out the deadwood while understanding where and what to plant as replacements for the forest. I don’t think this is the guy to do that."

Rick Weidman, director of policy & government affairs at Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), said that while McDonald's work outside the government will hopefully mean he takes a "fresh look" at the problems within VA, "The management structure at VA has been so bad for so long, and there is so much back-scratching, he will have to create a new management group at the hospital level and replace the directors and assistant directors. He must bring in people who are dedicated to helping veterans, as opposed to people who just want a job for which they get bonuses. I believe almost all of them ought to go."

Steve House, an Army veteran who was exposed to toxic chemicals while stationed in South Korea after the Vietnam War, spent a decade trying to get his disability claim approved at VA. He said that as a West Point graduate, McDonald is more likely to "roll over and go along with anything the Department of Defense says."

However, House said, if McDonald "steps into the VA management cow pie and runs it like a lean, profitable corporation and starts swinging the axe - beginning at the top - and gets rid of the overpaid, lazy VA management personnel, and puts all of the attention and money back into the system, and brings in more doctors, nurses and technicians, he could make it work."

Anthony Hardie, a Gulf War veteran and board member of Veterans for Common Sense, said, "I think the last thing VA needs is another General or symbolic war hero. What VA needs is a complete Operation Cleansweep. I hope with Bob McDonald's experience catering to stakeholders rather than employees that he will be able to clean house at VA and completely shift its focus. VA needs to be a service-oriented organization that goes above veterans' expectations to serve and help and heal them, rather than continuing to work against so many of the veterans it is supposed to be serving in VA's benefits, healthcare, and research silos."

To retain credibility, Hardie added, "one of the first goals he must achieve is to utterly destroy VA's current culture of delays, denial, and retribution against those who speak up and out." 
One respected veterans' advocate, who asked for anonymity, was in no mood to be diplomatic about the president's pick. 

"Another West Point grad? No VA experience," the advocate said. "Has he used VA medical care? Filed a disability claim? Bought a house using VA? Bought life insurance? Will he clean house? Change VA's slow culture? Work with Congress on full funding? Be transparent? Start Gulf War research for treatments? End the claim appeal disaster: 280,000 appeals waiting 5-10 years? Fire VA's Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey and all her staff? Put veterans first?"

McDonald Supported Mitt Romney

Meanwhile, McDonald represents a rare case in which Obama has reached across the aisle for help. McDonald has supported numerous Republican politicians. Roll Call  reports that he gave $15,000 to the Mitt Romney campaign committees in 2012, and Politico reports that less than a year ago, McDonald made a contribution of $1,000 to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who incidentally gave rare support to Obama for choosing McDonald, who is an Ohio native.

“Bob McDonald is a good man, a veteran, and a strong leader with decades of experience in the private sector," Boehner said in a statement. "With those traits, he’s the kind of person who is capable of implementing the kind of dramatic systemic change that is badly needed and long overdue at the VA. But the next VA secretary can only succeed in implementing that type of change if his boss, the president, first commits to doing whatever it takes to give our veterans the world class health care system they deserve by articulating a vision for sweeping reform.”

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, has been decrying VA corruption for several years and made it clear that McDonald must do more than previous VA leaders, or things at the agency will not change.

“If confirmed by the Senate, Robert McDonald will inherit a Department of Veterans Affairs under a specter of corruption that may very well surpass anything in the history of American government," Miller said in a statement. He added that McDonald will need to "root out the culture of dishonesty and fraud that has taken hold within the department and is contributing to all of its most pressing challenges. Quite simply, those who created the VA scandal will need to be purged from the system."

But personnel changes at the agency won’t be enough, according to Miller, who said the new VA leader will need to focus on "solving problems instead of downplaying or hiding them, holding employees accountable for mismanagement and negligence that harms veterans, and understanding that taxpayer funded organizations such as VA have a responsibility to provide information to Congress and the public rather than stonewalling them.” 

Paul Rieckhoff, CEO and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), said in a statement that McDonald is "not a name that was on anyone's radar over the last few weeks. His branding background may prove helpful, because there are few organizations in America with a worse reputation with its customers than the VA right now. He's been away from the military for quite a while, and will have to move quickly to show he is committed to and understands the post-9/11 generation of veterans. We look forward to hearing from him soon and working together to support our vets."

Rieckhoff added that as VA secretary, McDonald will need to do a better job reaching out to veterans service organizations (VSO) and other veteran advocates to better connect with the post-9/11 generation of veterans.

"In addition to reforming the VA healthcare system, combating veteran suicide and improving access to mental health care are major priorities for our community," Rieckhoff said. "As the new VA chief, McDonald has the ability to revitalize a broken system and alter the status quo, however without a contemporary background in our community, he will need to reach to VSOs and other leading advocates for vets. The White House did not reach out to VSOs during their search process and we hope they will now."

Robert Rosebrock, a veterans advocate and director of the Old Veterans Guard in Los Angeles, said the president should have chosen someone with hospital experience. 

"Going from a retired four-star general of the Army to a retired corporate executive of Proctor & Gamble indicates the president is rolling the dice again with another has-been of unrelated talent to run the VA," Rosebrock said. "The president should have nominated a currently employed and successful executive at a major hospital like the Mayo Clinic."

Sandy Cook, a retired Army officer and founder of Veterans United for Truth, said that while news reports emphasize "how good McDonald is with leaders, that does not mean he is going to be good with the bureaucratic drones in the VA. It certainly doesn’t mean that he will be good at the bottom of the pile where the veterans live. Generals have proven that they can’t run it. Bureaucrats don’t respond to orders. I am afraid that McDonald will prove that businessmen can’t run it either. Bureaucrats don’t respond to management, they just outlive it."

Cook said he has "little hope that anything great is going to happen soon. They’ll come up with new metrics, and fire a couple of people, and then will tell us, once again' that everything is going swimmingly, and spend most of their time patting each other on the back. McDonald will take credit, Obama will take credit, and Congressmen everywhere will take credit."

But Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) is taking a wait-and-see approach to McDonald.

"The VA needs significantly improved transparency and accountability and it needs an increased number of doctors, nurses and other medical staff so that all eligible veterans get high-quality health care in a timely manner," Sanders said in a statement. "I look forward to meeting with Mr. McDonald next week in order to ascertain his views on these important issues.”


  1. Let me guess. Liberals?

  2. The pick of a Proctor & Gamble executive has a plus: It's well known this is one one the best companies in America to start your career as a college graduate. Obviously they are doing the right things in regards to managing training, leading and the other qualities that are essential to reach the pinnacle P&G has in regards to being of of Americas best run companies.

    One wonders what role the Center for A New American Security plays in any of this, except as a source of an opinion. There are a ton of people at that organization, most military related, and I doubt they live on $50,000 salaries. They are obviously funded by the out of control Pentagon, whose appetite for war is higher than J. Wellington Wimpy, upon discovery of the best hamburger joint in town.

    The entire 'scandal' in my educated guess of how Obama's opponents operate, has the classic smell of another Karl Rove maneuver. We aren't hearing anything about WHY these 'whistle blowers' didn't come forward earlier to my knowledge. This borders on being an accessory to the numerous incidents, which run into the thousands. Federal employees are protected. To see a lifelong soldier and military tactician like Eric Shinseki, forced to fall on his sword ending his honorable career of service, is a scandal of a secondary nature. To review again, this travesty makes many trained observers physically ill when reviewing big picture of the gross negligence in Phoenix and the games played for political points in Washington.

    It's just EXPOSED just at the same time when the Koch Brothers Lieutenants in the states they OWN, are using Medicaid as a ploy to hamper the progress of the ACA. The 'whistle blowers' were far too late, and it cost peoples lives.

    That's what's going on. And, yes, I said OWNED. The Koch Brothers literally 'have in their back pockets' the political careers of hundreds of legislators on the state level; controlling the Legislative, Executive and Judicial branches of no less than 20 states. They 'own' every member of The Tea Party Caucus , 94 legislators; 95% Republican. ALEC, the organization that writes the legislative bills for their members to pass (this is totally separate and so are the members from the TPC) you can be assured they are 'bought and paid for.'

    Until Washington is fumigated and the rats finally get off the ship, is when you’ll see our veterans getting adequate care. If the same rodents serve another term, the deaths will not be limited to just the VA. They will happen twice the rate as the VA including the soldiers we lost in that godforsaken war for profit.

  3. If not for the media exposure in this issue and Congress being embarrassed by the real facts of which were known decades ago - I and many others have to wonder if the Congress would still be sitting on their butts doing nothing.

    Mr. McDonald will need divine intervention to make a dent into criminal element at VA and the criminal processes they use.

    An agency that operates as if it is a separate government itself with an unlimited supply of money no matter what it does that is criminal. It cannot be held accountable just like our real government leaders or so it seems.

    Without media attention on the benefits and claims side, just as bad or worse than medical as well, I doubt Congress will even raise an eyebrow.

    Why are disabled veterans denied the right to legal counsel when starting their claims?  Having the claims denied costs them years and years of delay.   Win in six months; or win on an appeal in six years or much longer. Is there any legal system in this nation that denies the plaintiff the right to legal and qualified council in any litigation at the start of the litigation? If so please name one. Veterans are systemically denied due process and access to legal counsel.---The end result…Veterans as well as Widows are denied equal protection of the law under the 5th Amendment against their own governments use of administrative fraud, scientific fraud, an unconstitutional legal system, government interference at the highest levels of government in scientific fraud not only in studies meant to help Veterans but also Federal Agencies, and most of all illegal and criminal use of power granted to a Federal Agency by our own Congress.

    Vietnam 67-68

  4. I think I see another dud coming! What else can I expect from a failed President?

  5. According to Business Insider he left his position suddenly at P&G in 2013. One of his problems was spending 25% of his time on boards of other companies.
    The VA will take more than 100% effort to turn around. And it would probably take several years to accomplish given a good leader. That would give the President credit for the short-term as having solved a major problem and help the Democrats politically in their impending elections, but may not solve the VA problems in the short- or long-term.