Veterans Affairs Chief Vows to Operate Like a Business
Policy + Politics

Veterans Affairs Chief Vows to Operate Like a Business

The new head of the Veterans Affairs Department, Robert McDonald, says he’s determined to run the sprawling, scandal-ridden government agency like a business. And to prove he means “business,” the former private sector executive ticked off this morning on NBC’s Meet the Press some of the changes he’s already made in the six short months he’s been on the job:

  • He has fired more than 900 employees, 60 of whom were removed because they manipulated wait times on records from veteran care medical facilities.
  • He is investigating more than 100 senior leaders for their actions.
  • He’s given out his personal cell phone number to assist in the services provided by the problem-plagued veterans’ homelessness call center.
  • He met with the comptroller general and personally encouraged him to put the VA’s hospital problems on the GAO’s annual “High Risk List,” which happened this year for the first time, in order to shine a light on those problems and get them fixed in a timely manner.

Related: Embattled VA Added to Federal High-Risk List

“We’re not where we need to be yet,” said McDonald this morning. “I’m not saying that.” But he is convinced the agency is making progress, he said.

The former corporate executive at Procter & Gamble was sworn in unanimously by the Senate in late July 2014 after his predecessor, Eric Shinseki, resigned in disgrace following revelations that more than 40 veterans died while awaiting health services at a VA health facility in Phoenix, Arizona. Thousands more across the country experienced longer-than-usual wait times for care.

Shortly after taking the reins, McDonald told his department in a memo, “I will not tolerate those who stifle initiative, seek to punish people who raise legitimate concerns or report problems, or lack integrity in word or deed. Trust is essential.” 

He told Chuck Todd this morning his goal is to end homelessness among veterans by the end of 2015. He reiterated the agreement he and attorneys for homeless veterans in L.A. negotiated last week after a four-year lawsuit. The West Lost Angeles VA campus will ramp up services to veterans in need, including those who are homeless, aging or disabled.

“I knew we were aligned on the issue, which was to take care of veterans,” he said of the deal. “We announced the agreement and we’re moving ahead. We’re putting in more vouchers that will get people into housing. We have buildings that are vacant. We need to do some seismic work on them… We’re moving full steam ahead.”

Related: Americans Sour on VA After Health Scandal

Veteran homelessness is down nationally some 33 percent since 2010, but McDonald acknowledged the vast amount of work still to be done. The Veterans Affairs agency, responsible for running more than 150 hospitals, has a budget of some $170 billion.

“Can you really run the VA like a business?” Todd asked.

“I think you can. I think that’s the process we’re testing,” said McDonald, an Army veteran himself and a West Point graduate. “I’m determined to take business practices and apply them to government and make them work.”

Todd asked him about the hit war drama American Sniper, which is based on the real-life experiences of SEAL sniper Chris Kyle. The film has already brought in more than $304 million in the U.S. alone. “Great movie,” said McDonald. “I’m hoping [it] will help raise the consciousness for the need for mental health treatments among the general public. We see that need [in the VA], but it’s a national need as well.”

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