National Press Club

VA Secretary McDonald touts reforms he's implemented during Press Club Luncheon

November 6, 2015 | By Varun Saxena |

Robert McDonald, secretary of Veterans Affairs, speaks about ongoing reforms at the VA at a National Press Club Luncheon on Nov. 6, 2015

Robert McDonald, secretary of Veterans Affairs, speaks about ongoing reforms at the VA at a National Press Club Luncheon on Nov. 6, 2015

Photo/Image: Ferdous Al-Faruque

In the aftermath of a scandal involving long waiting lines at veterans hospitals and falsified records, progress is being made, but there is still lots of work to done, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald repeatedly said during a Nov. 6 National Press Club Luncheon.

The former CEO of Proctor & Gamble and graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point was chosen last year by President Barack Obama to lead the tarnished agency’s turnaround effort, dubbed the MyVA Transformation Plan.

The agency has expanded its capabilities to assist veterans by adding more than 15,000 staff to the Veterans Health Administration and increasing the number of primary-care exam rooms, McDonald said.

“In the wake of the access crisis, we aggressively increased access to care. In the 12 months following the crisis, June of 2014 to June of 2015, we completed 7 million more appointments than during the same period the previous year," he said. The total was 61.5 million for the fiscal year.

In addition, McDonald said 97 percent of appointments occur within 30 days. But he acknowledged “that if you are the one in the tail of the curve, like a veteran living in a city seeing dramatic veteran-population growth, they’re not acceptable.”

Another issue being tackled by the VA is veterans homelessness, McDonald said. “Since 2010 over 230,000 veterans and family members have been permanently housed, rapidly rehoused, or prevented from falling into homelessness,” he said.

Finding employees is one of the agency’s biggest challenges, McDonald said. The agency needs thousands more doctors and nurses, and needs to fill 41 senior-level vacancies, he said. He focused heavily on VA staffing challenges during his speech. He is putting an emphasis on improving employee morale and training, saying “there’s not a good customer-service company in the world that has unhappy employees or untrained employees.”

Traditionally, firing employees has been a challenge. Since the scandal, McDonald has gained more latitude to fire underperforming employees because Congress determined that rules overprotecting staff contributed to the waiting line debacle.

“Since July 29, when I was confirmed last year, 2,280 people have been terminated from the VA,” McDonald said. He added that 10 out of 16 of his direct reports are new hires, and said that more than 90 percent of VA medical centers have new directors or new leadership teams.

McDonald also listed the VA’s contributions to medicine, which he said makes it essential to the general public. Its accomplishments include conducting the first liver transplant, implanting the first cardiac pacemaker and inventing the Shingle’s vaccine.

In addition, the VA helps train 70 percent of U.S. doctors by providing them with residencies, McDonald said.

Throughout the speech McDonald stressed the importance of bringing various management techniques from his business background to the government, such as Lean Six Sigma and flexible budgeting.

McDonald earned applause when he called for an end to political “gamesmanship,” such as “gotcha” questions designed to be confusing and produce poorly worded answers. He began his speech by announcing that the VA expanded its partnership with YMCA to help transitioning veterans reintegrate into their communities, and touted The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elk’s recent donation of $4 million to fight veterans homelessness.

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