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Secretary Of Embattled VA: 'I Can Reset The Tone'

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert A. McDonald attends a news conference after a visit to the James A. Haley Medical Center in Tampa, Fla., last month.
Chris O'Meara
Associated Press
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert A. McDonald attends a news conference after a visit to the James A. Haley Medical Center in Tampa, Fla., last month.

Former Army Ranger and Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald took over as secretary of veterans affairs three months ago, while the department was stained by scandal. The VA for years had falsified documents to conceal the delays veterans faced in getting medical care. One audit found that 13 percent of VA schedulers were told to cook the books.

A few months into his tenure, McDonald has announced an ambitious reorganization plan for the VA. He plans firings and other discipline, but also better ways to serve the department's customers, the veterans.

In a statement released Monday, McDonald promised to create a new framework to help veterans "more easily navigate VA without having to understand our inner structure" and establish veteran advisory councils.

McDonald told NPR's Robert Siegel on Monday that the organization also needs more funding and more doctors.

"I think we need more resources," said McDonald. "If I look back at what's happened over time, we've had a huge increase in demand. We had veterans who'd suffered from Agent Orange, from the Vietnam era. ... We've discovered things like post-traumatic stress. That science then allows veterans of previous wars to get that qualification for our service. So, we've had a huge increase in demand, and we haven't kept up with the supply."

As part of that resource gap, McDonald acknowledged that the VA increasingly will have to partner with other health providers to get veterans the care they need. "The system that we will end up running will be a series of partnerships," said McDonald, "[for patients that are] 40 miles from one of our facilities, or where we don't have technologies, or our wait times are too long. We want to make sure our veterans get the care they deserve."

McDonald said that in the past few months, the VA has already made significant progress. "We've been working hard to improve getting veterans into our hospitals," said McDonald. "We've had over a million more appointments over the last four months. We've driven down disability claims by 60 percent. Homelessness is down of veterans by 33 percent. So it's all about results for the American people."

McDonald said some problems at the VA also plague the overall American health care system, particularly a shortage of doctors. He said during visits to medical schools, he was told the VA isn't the only institution with that need.

"The people ... told me Florida needs 17,000 more doctors. ... Janet Napolitano, who leads the University of California ... said that California needs 22,000 more doctors," he said, adding, "We're not just producing enough doctors."

McDonald admitted that the issue is not one he can fix alone. But in an earlier interview with CNN, McDonald said he's already cleaning house at the VA. The organization has taken disciplinary action against more than 5,000 employees and McDonald's promised that firings will come. McDonald told 60 Minutes that some 1,000 VA personnel should be let go.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sam Sanders
Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.