A onetime Army Ranger and former CEO of a Fortune 500 consumer products company may face his toughest challenge yet in fixing the scandal-plagued Veterans Affairs Department.
President Barack Obama tapped 61-year-old Robert McDonald this week to overhaul an agency reeling from revelations of widespread treatment delays and falsified records to cover up months-long waits for appointments. The appointment comes a year after McDonald was ousted as Proctor & Gamble’s CEO amid criticism he wasn’t making changes fast enough.
The White House released a scathing report last week, saying the VA lacks resources, struggles with a “corrosive culture” of distrust, and is ill-prepared to deal with an influx of new and older veterans with a range of medical and mental health needs. The agency serves nearly 9 million veterans with an annual budget of $154 billion, one of the largest in the federal government.
“The VA is a large and troubled organization,” said Robert Bies, a management professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business. “What’s really missing is management of the culture. You have to have someone who can manage complex organizations, and [McDonald] has a track record of doing that.”
Some veterans groups question McDonald’s selection, saying they were not consulted about the choice and were not familiar with McDonald, a West Point graduate who has been out of the military for more than 30 years. More importantly, the groups say, McDonald has no direct healthcare experience, a potentially crucial deficiency as he takes over an agency that treats veterans suffering from a multitude of war-related physical and mental injuries and illnesses.
Just how McDonald got the job remains somewhat of a mystery. Aides say the president was looking for someone who had led a large organization and was familiar with military culture, although it is not clear how McDonald, who supported Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election, first came to Obama’s attention.
“McDonald’s name just kept coming up, at the intersection of having managed a large corporation well and being a vet,” said a senior administration official who asked not to be identified in discussing internal White House deliberations. “There was a strong preference for someone who has served.”
McDonald said in accepting the nomination that he plans to put veterans at the center of everything the VA does. “At the VA, the veteran is our customer and we must all focus all day, every day on getting them the benefits and the care that they have so earned,” he said Monday. “That’s the only reason we are here.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said he was reserving judgment until he hears firsthand McDonald’s plans to fix the VA. Sanders said he wanted to know whether McDonald supports temporarily contracting out services to private medical providers to reduce waiting times.
Despite some reservations, McDonald appears headed for easy Senate confirmation. Both parties urged Obama to fill the vacancy quickly so the agency overhaul can begin in earnest.