Can the New VA Secretary Really Turn Around the VA?

 /  Dec. 6, 2014, 5 p.m.

McDonald and Reid

Amid public scandal and condemnation, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is restructuring. Robert McDonald, the newly confirmed secretary and former CEO of Procter & Gamble, is leading the charge for change at a time when the VA has never been under more scrutiny.

McDonald’s appointment, which passed in the Senate with a resounding 97–0 vote, came in the aftermath of the most recent VA scandal. Over the summer, news broke that dozens of patients across the United States were dying from lack of care, and that the VA was falsifying records to cover up long wait lines.To right the wrongs, McDonald recently announced that thirty-five employees had been fired and floated the possibility that another thousand VA workers could lose their jobs. Additionally, four top administrators currently running hospitals around the country will be asked to leave. McDonald is stymied in his efforts to remove and replace his officials because all of the “firings” have to be approved by the Senate and House committees on veterans affairs.

In an interview with 60 Minutes, McDonald insisted that those who will be fired lost sight of the goals of the VA, whose primary mission is to provide high quality medical care to veterans. McDonald has singled out specific directors of hospitals in Pennsylvania, Alabama, and Georgia because of their involvement with a number of scandalous medical and bureaucratic disasters including the falsification of records, neglect of duty, and conduct unbecoming of an official. The leadership of these former top officials resulted in bureaucratic disaster. Wait lists grew longer and over one hundred thousand veterans went without care.

The scandal intensified when, at various Congressional hearings, Inspector General Richard Griffin admitted that these wait lists directly caused forty deaths in the Phoenix VA hospital alone.

Investigations  regarding the state of other hospitals around the country have yet to be made public. Until they are, however, there is no guarantee that veteran patients—even if admitted to a hospital—will get adequate care.

Among the other failures stands the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, a hospital that was once the crowning achievement of the VA. Walter Reed is now overwhelmed by the demands of constant warfare and struggles to keep up with the growing demands from both returning soldiers and aging veterans. There are currently over seven hundred patients admitted, which exceeds the hospital’s capacity and forces it to routinely discharge patients prematurely. Those patients either need further treatment or await reassignment. Either way, they enter the cesspool of American bureaucracy, becoming just another number.

While returning veterans struggle to find adequate care in the states, their peers are struggling to receive adequate medical attention or preparation in the field. New York Times Journalist C.J Chivers recently wrote an expose that blew the lid off a massive cover-up regarding chemical weapons, medical care, and high-level officials during the first Iraqi invasion. His investigative journalism explores the lack of medical preparation and attention given to soldiers who interacted with stockpiles of chemical weapons.

Chivers provides chilling accounts of the soldiers who “repeatedly encountered, and at times were wounded” by chemical weapons abandoned across Iraq. After encountering the chemical weapons, soldiers were questioned by medical staff and accused of taking recreational drugs, inevitably delaying critical medical treatment.

When the military and the Bush administration were forced to confront the issue, supervisors “pressed for a cover up” of the operation and soldiers were told to report they found “nothing of significance.” When the wounded finally received treatment, they were prohibited from telling anyone what had happened. Their condition was labeled  “top secret.” The lack of preparation the soldiers were given in the battlefield and the difficulty they faced in receiving medical care mirrors the bureaucratic struggle plaguing veterans on their return home. A pattern has emerged in the handling of veterans at home and abroad that involves covering up the embarrassing lapses in care.

McDonald must overcome this cover-up culture while he faces the challenge of properly staffing his 151 VA hospitals around the country. The VA is losing out on new doctors who prefer the larger salaries of private sector jobs. McDonald seeks to make the VA competitive by offering student loan forgiveness as he seeks to fill over twenty-eight thousand positions. The current shortage of doctors and nurses is partially to blame for the recent lapses in care. It's no wonder McDonald struggles to recruit for his hospitals given the pay differential and recent news reports of VA mismanagement.

McDonald faces a herculean task ahead of him. He must take on hospital directors, dangerously long wait lists, and even top military officials to change the way the government delivers healthcare. McDonald must restore faith in an ineffective, yet essential, government agency for the sake of protecting veterans who risked their lives for the American people.

Haley Schwab