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White House nominates McDonald to lead VA

Jun. 30, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Barack Obama, Robert McDonald
President Obama speaks at the Department of Veterans Affairs on June 30 in Washington to announce he will nominates former Procter & Gamble executive Robert McDonald, right, as the next Veterans Affairs secretary. (Charles Dharapak / AP)
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President Obama on Monday nominated former Procter & Gamble CEO Bob McDonald to serve as the eighth Veterans Affairs secretary — a move that puts an experienced corporate manager at the helm of the beleaguered department.

Describing McDonald as “no-nonsense” and “pragmatic,” Obama said the former Army captain and 1975 U.S. Military Academy graduate knows that the “key is staying focused on the people you serve.”

“Grand plans are not enough,” Obama said. “What matters is ... getting the job done.”

McDonald, 61, who spent 33 years at P&G and served as its CEO for four of those years, is charged with fixing the ongoing problems involving patient appointments and delays in veterans care. He will be expected to restore credibility to a department under fire for patient deaths, hospital mismanagement and punitive actions taken against those who tried to expose the problems.

On Monday, McDonald said his life’s purpose has been to “improve the lives of others,” and he chose West Point and the Rangers to be on the “front lines” of helping the oppressed. Leading VA, he said, would continue his mission of service.

“We need to put veterans at the center of everything we do at VA. Veterans must be the focus all day, every day,” McDonald said in brief remarks following Obama’s announcement.

McDonald is the son of an Army Air Corps veteran and has stayed active in the West Point Alumni Association, establishing a biennial McDonald Cadet Leadership Conference. He’s also a life member of the U.S. Army Ranger Association and the 75th Ranger Regiment Association and a classmate of acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson.

Obama’s selection of McDonald to lead VA follows calls for an experienced executive to run the massive bureaucracy, one of the country’s largest cabinet departments. Previous VA chiefs have been retired general or field-grade officers with military leadership experience, but often lack the corporate-style management skills to head an agency of more than 300,000 employees.

Reaction to the pick by lawmakers and veterans’ groups largely was positive, although some expressed surprise when the Washington Post first reported the news.

Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, expressed concern that McDonald lacks an understanding of the issues facing post-9/11 veterans, but said his branding background may “prove helpful.”

“There are few organizations in America with a worse reputation with its customers than the VA right now. He’s been away from the military for quite a while, and will have to move quickly to show he is committed to and understands the post-9/11 generation of veterans,” Reickhoff said.

The chairmen of both the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs committees said they look forward to working with McDonald.

“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,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said McDonald will need to “root out the culture of dishonesty and fraud that has taken hold within the department” in order to succeed.

“The only way McDonald can set the department up for long-term success is to take the opposite approach of some other VA senior leaders,” Miller said.

The announcement comes a month after retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki resigned as VA secretary from after more than five years amid a widening scandal involving the manipulation of patient appointment data and deaths possibly related to delays in care.

Shinseki took responsibility for the problems but resigned when calls from lawmakers for him to step down began to proliferate. In his departure speech, he said he had taken steps to address the problem, but recognized that he needed to leave to allow the department to continue working on the issues without the distraction of his leadership.

It’s a situtation with which McDonald is familiar; he resigned from P&G in May 2013 amid concerns over his leadership of the company, which experienced volatile earnings under his tenure.

According to the Wall Street Journal, McDonald told vendors he planned to step down out of concern that the spotlight on his leadership was detracting from the company. “When we get to a point where too much attention becomes a distraction, it’s time to change that dynamic,” he wrote.

The nomination comes just a few weeks before Congress ends its legislative schedule for an extended pre-election break. Senate officials already have promised to work quickly on McDonald’s nomination, but finishing the background work required for confirmation before lawmakers recess in August could be difficult.

Staff writer Leo Shane III contributed to this story.

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