VA secretary nominee sails through confirmation hearing

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Denis McDonough, President Biden’s pick to head the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), wants to get the nation’s veterans through the coronavirus pandemic starting day one, if confirmed.

“The president directed me to focus on getting out veterans through this pandemic,” McDonough said in his opening statement to the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee at his confirmation hearing.

The task is a daunting one. If confirmed, McDonough would be responsible for the massive undertaking of administering COVID-19 vaccines to millions of veterans and VA employees across the country.

McDonough, a White House chief of staff under former President Obama, also vowed he would have a “relentless focus” on providing timely, top health care to veterans; ensuring they have access to VA benefits; reducing veteran suicide and homelessness; making the agency more inclusive for women, minority and LGBTQ veterans; and building trust.

To secure such commitments, he pledged to “bring a deep and extensive knowledge of government” from his time in the Obama administration to the agency, which has struggled with numerous controversies in the last 10 years.

“This won’t be easy. The Department of Veterans Affairs faces great challenges, challenges made even more daunting by the coronavirus pandemic. Its capabilities have not always risen to the needs of our veterans,” he said. 

McDonough — an unexpected nominee who would become only the second nonveteran to lead the VA — sailed through the confirmation hearing after fielding largely uncontentious queries from lawmakers. He is expected to easily be confirmed in early February.

VA service groups, unions and a handful of lawmakers have worried that McDonough’s limited firsthand experience with the VA may lead to a slow start, as he is not a veteran.

“Your chief responsibility during this unprecedented time will be to save as many lives as possible,” Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester (D-Mont.), told McDonough. “There is a lot riding on your shoulders. … Veterans across this country need you to succeed.”

More than 8,500 veterans and 120 VA staffers have died as a result of COVID-19, with more than 200,000 patients and 18,000 staffers contracting the virus since March.

Asked by Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), about his role in Biden’s goal to administer 100 million coronavirus vaccines in 100 days, McDonough said he “will demand a seat at the table” and “be a staunch and fierce advocate for veterans getting access.”

Senators also questioned McDonough on the privatization of health care services. He replied that he supports community care but opposes fully outsourcing such aid.

“Community care will continue to be a key part of how the department cares for our veterans. Full stop,” he said.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) brought up the fact that many veterans were part of the mob of violent insurrectionists that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6. McDonough said he would work with other agencies in rooting out disinformation and increasing education to prevent online efforts to target and radicalize veterans.

“It’s as important as an assignment to protect our democracy as any. I could see a variety of opportunities for the VA to be an important actor in those efforts,” he said.

The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee will vote on McDonough’s nomination on Tuesday, after which it will go to the Senate floor. 

Tags Denis McDonough Jon Tester Mazie Hirono
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