Obama taps nominee for VA

Obama taps nominee for VA
© Greg Nash

President Obama has tapped Robert McDonald, a former Procter & Gamble chief executive and West Point graduate, to run the troubled Veterans Affairs Department, a White House official said Sunday.

McDonald, who will need to be confirmed by the Senate, would take over a department in crisis, after officials there covered up how long it was taking veterans to get medical care.

Obama will announce McDonald’s nomination Monday, the White House official said, adding that McDonald’s more than three decades in corporate America “make him the perfect person” to take over an agency tasked with helping more than eight million veterans.

Eric Shinseki, the former Army general who was Obama's first Veterans Affairs secretary, resigned a month ago because of the agency's problems getting care to former soldiers. Sloan Gibson, Shinseki's deputy, has since been acting secretary.

If confirmed, McDonald would take over a department that a recent White House report said was weighed down by a “corrosive culture” and “significant and chronic systemic failures.”

Rob Nabors, who was sent by Obama to help clean up the problems at the Veterans Affairs Department, also detailed what he called serious technology issues at the department, and an inability for VA brass to communicate what sort of resources they needed and what was expected of rank-and-file staffers.

Because of all those issues, key lawmakers on Capitol Hill said that the next VA secretary faced a range of challenges, and that they looked forward to meeting with 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,” Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said in a statement.

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), the House Veterans’ Affairs panel chairman, said McDonald would “inherit a Department of Veterans Affairs under a specter of corruption that may very well surpass anything in the history of American government.”

The choice of McDonald also marks something of a shift from past VA secretaries, who have often been retired military officers.

But the White House cast the challenges at the VA as personal for the 61-year-old McDonald, a former Army ranger who graduated in the top 2 percent of his class at West Point and had family members that fought in both World War II and the Vietnam War.

McDonald’s uncle gets medical care from the VA, after being exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam, and McDonald himself still is a major donor to the U.S. Military Academy.

The former chief executive left Procter & Gamble last year, after frustrating some investors with his handling of the massive 120,000 employee corporation that has some five billion customers around the world.

Procter & Gamble’s products include Crest toothpaste, Pampers diapers and Tide detergent. McDonald joined the company in 1980, eventually rising from an entry-level job to chief executive.

McDonald also has a history of giving to Republican causes, including to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and to lawmakers like Speaker John Boehner and Sen. Rob Portman from his home state of Ohio. McDonald just this year gave to Rep. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who is seeking a Senate seat.

The controversy surrounding the VA has been swirling for months, amid reports that the agency hid delays that veterans faced in getting care.

VA officials, for instance, are accused of cooking records to make it seem like veterans saw a doctor within two weeks. Nabors, in his Friday report, said that 14-day standard was “arbitrary, ill-defined, and misunderstood.”

But observers also say the problems at the agency are not confined to the top, and that McDonald, should he be confirmed, will have to tackle an agency-wide culture problem.

“In order to pave the way for serious and substantive reforms that will help VA to effectively deliver the care and benefits our veterans have earned, he’ll 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,” said Miller, the House VA chairman. “Quite simply, those who created the VA scandal will need to be purged from the system.”

—This report was last updated at 5:39 p.m.