Robert McDonald, a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger, looks to be the kind of hard-charging leader the country needs to clean up and restore trust in the beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs.
Last Friday, a day after President Barack Obama signed a bipartisan bill that allocates $16.3 billion for the department, secretary McDonald met with veterans and staffers in the Phoenix VA Health Care System. This is the medical system that touched off a national firestorm when reports surfaced that dozens of veterans died while waiting to see a doctor and that employees tried to cover up long wait times.
Phoenix was McDonald's first stop in a nationwide tour of VA facilities to meet with employees and patients on improving the system. At Friday's news conference, he announced that the Phoenix center will receive up to $20.8 million for a new outpatient center and will help the VA hire more doctors and nurses to staff more clinics.
In signing the Veterans' Access to Care bill, the president used terms such as wrong, outrageous and inexcusable in describing the conduct at some VA health-care facilities, which included cooking the books to cover up those veterans who were denied care.
"If you engage in an unethical practice, if you cover up a serious problem, you should be fired. Period," he said.
We hope that includes the three Phoenix VA administrators who remain on paid leave after being suspended May 1. A fourth member of the Phoenix group, a nursing executive, announced her retirement. Administrator Sharon Helman's total compensation for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2013, was $237,904. The new records show that she also received $126,662 in total compensation through April 5 of this year.
Pennsylvania is among the states whose VA facilities are being investigated for failing to provide timely appointments and possible cooking of the books to cover it up. Both of the state's U.S. senators, Pat Toomey and Bob Casey, voiced their concerns in the wake of the scandal.
Toomey said the bipartisan measure gives veterans flexibility on where they receive medical care. Casey, meanwhile, released a letter to McDonald, pushing for the VA to take steps to implement and strengthen whistleblower protections and management reforms.
So far, the speed in which the administration, McDonald and Congress have acted to correct the VA mess has been commendable. The volume of public outrage the scandal precipitated and the fact that midterm elections are just around the corner are two big reasons why the VA issue received so much attention in Washington.
By Jim Zbick