VA chief unveils plan to fix troubled agency

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald on Monday rolled out a three-pronged strategy to revamp the troubled department.

The plan, dubbed the Road to Veterans Day, is designed to “rebuild trust” with veterans, improve healthcare delivery and “set a course for long-term excellence,” McDonald said during his first press conference as VA chief.

“We'll judge the success of all of these efforts against one single, unified metric. And that metric is, obviously, the satisfaction of the veterans that were trained to serve,” he added.

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The new roadmap comes a little over a month after McDonald was approved in a 97-0 Senate vote to take over the agency, which has been plagued for months by scandals over patient wait times.

Since then, President Obama signed into law a $16.3 billion bill to overhaul the VA and McDonald has traveled extensively to department facilities throughout the country.

Two weeks ago, the VA inspector general released its final report on a VA hospital in Phoenix, where 40 patients allegedly died while waiting for care, sparking a full-fledged national scandal. The watchdog’s investigation, however, found no direct link between patient deaths and wait times.

“I want to personally apologize to all veterans who experienced unacceptable delays in care” in Phoenix and across the country, McDonald, a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger, said at the beginning of his press conference.

He noted that there are more than 100 ongoing investigations into VA facilities by the inspector general, the Justice Department, the FBI and the Office of Special Counsel, among others.

McDonald also provided a laundry list of efforts that have been taken to improve the agency, including reaching out to 294,000 veterans to get them off wait lists, giving nearly one million referrals for non-VA medical care and conducting audits at more than 3,000 department facilities nationwide.

The former Procter & Gamble executive said he hoped to rebuild trust among veterans by asking all agency employees to “recommit themselves, reconfirm their commitment” to the department’s core values of assisting veterans.

McDonald said he intended to improve healthcare delivery by using more digital technology at VA facilities and “flattening” the organization. He noted the department has 14 websites that each require a separate login and password to access.

“That’s just flat wrong,” he said.

Lastly, McDonald said instill a new culture of “excellence and reform” at the department, pointing to a White House audit from this summer that concluded the agency suffered from a “toxic” environment.

He pledged a new era of transparency at the agency, at several times insisting reporters call him “Bob” and at one point giving out his personal cellphone number so that those in attendance could reach him directly.

McDonald refuted suggestions that the VA was dragging its feet in using new powers to dismiss senior employees who had been found incompetent or negligent.

“We are as impatient as you are,” he said. “But while investigations are going on, we are not allowed to take definitive action.”