By Martin Matishak - 07/22/14 04:33 PM EDT
President Obama’s nominee to lead the troubled Veterans Affairs Department promised Tuesday that he would hold employees accountable for long waiting times that may have contributed to the deaths of some veterans.
“Those employees that have violated the trust of the department and of veterans must be, and will be, held accountable,” Robert McDonald said at this confirmation hearing before the Senate Veterans Affairs’ Committee.
He would succeed Erik Shinseki, who resigned on May 30 after revelations that patients waited months for appointments at VA facilities despite a 14-day maximum waiting time guideline. Reports also allege VA employees covered up the long waiting times.
Independent investigations have found that the misconduct was widespread throughout the VA healthcare system, and the FBI is now conducting a criminal investigation.
McDonald admitted that the department is in “crisis,” over the scandals, but insisted it was possible to fix the department.
He described himself as a “forward-looking leader” and argued his experience was needed to modernize the VA to serve the next generation of soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“There is a lot of work to do to transform the department. It won’t be easy, but it is essential and can be achieved,” he told the panel.
In his opening statement, McDonald played up his links to the military, noting that his father served during World War II and that his father-in-law was a prisoner of war. He also said he has an uncle who was exposed to Agent Orange and a nephew in the Air Force flying missions in the Middle East today.
McDonald said he would seek to boost communication between employees and agency leaders by hosting quarterly video conferences with the entire VA.
He also pledged to travel “extensively” over the first several months of his tenure to hear directly from employees and veterans and establish a board of physicians to advise him on best practices for delivering medical treatment.
“I desperately want this job because I think I can make a difference,” McDonald told Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in response to a question about why he wanted to be the VA’s chief. “If not me, then who?”