WASHINGTON, July 22 (UPI) -- Senators looked to President Obama's new Veterans Affairs nominee, Robert McDonald, for answers Tuesday as talks to piece together a compromise on legislation to fix the troubled department have stalled.
McDonald, the retired CEO of Proctor & Gamble and graduate of West Point, faced questioning before the Senate VA committee on Capitol Hill, promising to bring his record of "effective management, strong leadership and of being responsive to the needs of customers" from his 33 years at P&G.
"I think that Mr. McDonald brings to us two very important qualities: He is familiar with the military because he has served in the military, and he has been the CEO of one of the major American corporations," said Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. "It is no question we need good quality management, and I hope Mr. McDonald's corporate experience will give him the tools that he needs."
If confirmed, McDonald will step into a department reeling from revelations of mismanagement within the Veterans Health Administration, including veterans put on secret lists to disguise the long wait-times they faced before receiving care. He'll take the reigns of the largest integrated health system in the U.S., with a $163 billion budget and 300,000 employees charged with the care of 9 million veterans.
"The seriousness of this moment demands urgent action, and if confirmed, I pledge to this committee, and to our nation's veterans, to take a series of immediate actions over the first 90 days to deliver the needed reforms our veterans deserve," McDonald said, in his prepared statement, and promised later to report back to the committee after that period with a game plan.
"You must usher in a new culture throughout VA," urged Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the committee's ranking member.
McDonald promised to institute a system in which problems are recognized and solutions and preventions are shared throughout the VA, as well as create a strategic plan that will bring in line individual employee's performance reviews with the overall mission of the department.
At the hearing, McDonald was flanked by his fellow Ohioans -- Sens. Rob Portman, a Republican, and Sherrod Brown, a Democrat -- to introduce him, indicative of the bipartisan support McDonald is likely to receive when his nomination is brought to vote.
"This is a distinguished patriot who is going to step forward for his country," Portman said. Added Brown: "There's no doubt in my mind Bob McDonald understands the gravity of this mission."
Portman described McDonald's tenure at P&G as someone who "pushed accountability" as he rose through the ranks to eventually become CEO.
"Unlike previous VA secretaries, you bring management experience with you from the private sector." said Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., who said he thought McDonald was "the right man for the job." "Perhaps that's exactly what the VA needs."
Both the House and Senate have passed similar measures aimed at fixing the VA's backlogs and management problems, but the debate over a compromise bill has faltered over spending. Johanns, referring to testimony from acting VA Sec. Sloan Gibson for $17.6 billion to address capacity problems, said he "can't believe throwing more money at the problem is the answer."
"There are capacity issues at the VA," countered Sen. Maisie Hirono, D-Hawaii. "I'm not going to say you don't need more money."
"I have no fear about what you will do in that position, I have a fear about what we will do," added Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V. "You cannot build something without paying for it."
The House passed its version of a fix unanimously on June 10, approving a bill that would allow veterans to seek medical care at an outside provider if they are forced to wait more than 30 days for an appointment or live more than 40 miles from a VA center.
A similar Senate bill also passed overwhelmingly on June 11, but a Congressional Budget Office letter that scored the legislation at possibly costing more than $50 billion per year as veterans seek out more care caused some supporters of the measure to reconsider.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., was deeply critical of comments from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid expressing skepticism that the conference committee would be able to come up with a final bill before the August recess.
"We ought not adjourn for an August recess in the absences of us coming to a conclusion," Moran said, acknowledging that the VA has earned criticism but that Congress would not be immune to blame. "If we don't see a solution, the United States Senate would be deserving of that same condemnation."
Democrat Mark Begich, whose home state of Alaska has the highest percentage of veterans among its citizens, urged McDonald to hit the ground running, even if legislation doesn't come right away.
"The reality is many of the things we're going to put into that legislation you could do already," Begich said. "Don't wait for us. Get going."