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Restoring integrity at Veterans Affairs is top priority for Robert McDonald

Veterans Affairs nominee Robert McDonald arrives at the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill, in Washington, on July 22nd, 2014. (Graeme Jennings/Examiner)

Restoring integrity at the Department of Veterans Affairs is Robert McDonald's top priority, the man picked to become the new secretary of the embattled agency said as he drew unanimous praise from a key Senate committee Tuesday.

The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee will vote on McDonald’s nomination Wednesday, said Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

Sanders and others on the committee, both Republicans and Democrats, endorsed the nomination and said they are certain McDonald will be confirmed by the full Senate. Sanders said he hopes that will happen before the Senate breaks for its August recess.

Committee members praised the military background and business expertise of McDonald, a West Point graduate and former CEO of Procter & Gamble. Several asked why someone with his qualifications wanted the job, particularly after recent revelations of widespread falsification of patient waiting lists have decimated the agency's credibility.

“I desperately want this job because I think I can make a difference,” said McDonald, a former Army Ranger who spent three decades with P&G. “I think that my entire career has prepared me for this task. There is no higher calling, and this is an opportunity for me to make a difference in the lives of veterans who I care so deeply about. If not me, who?”

The VA has been under near-constant fire amid ever-widening scandals over falsified appointment logs, patient deaths and long backlogs in delivering health care and disability benefits to veterans. The agency's inspector general in May confirmed “systemic” falsification of waiting lists for medical appointments nationwide.

The bogus lists made it appear veterans were getting care within agency-set deadlines, an important factor for hospital administrators as they clamored for positive performance reviews and merit bonuses.

Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki abruptly resigned May 30, shortly after the IG released its interim report on an investigation that began in April to determine if secret waiting lists were kept at the Phoenix hospital. The IG's investigation has since spread to at least 77 VA medical facilities nationwide.

As an outsider, McDonald was not asked to defend the agency's failures.

If confirmed, he will not tolerate a culture where lying to cover up problems is considered acceptable, he said.

McDonald said the honor code he learned at West Point stressed that cheating was unacceptable, and so was allowing someone else to cheat. That value needs to be applied to VA, he said.

“It’s unconscionable to me that you have an organization where the first stated value is integrity, yet you have people lying and you have people tolerating it,” McDonald said. “You don’t want people in your community lying. You don’t tolerate them lying.”

If he is confirmed, McDonald said he plans to travel to VA facilities around the country to speak with employees, veterans and veterans’ service organizations to get an on-the-ground assessment of what reforms are needed.

The fact-finding tour will be done without an entourage that could skew the information he gets, he said.

“The people I’ve met seem very dedicated to the mission and the core values,” McDonald said of his interactions with VA staff so far. “But what we’ve got to do is figure out who wasn’t.”

McDonald generally gave bland answers to tame questions throughout the hearing. Committee members thanked him for being willing to take over the troubled agency and did not draw him into detailed discussion about sweeping reform proposals languishing in a House-Senate conference committee.

“I think your confirmation is assured,” Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., told McDonald. “I do believe you are the right person for the job.”

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, used similar language in predicting McDonald’s confirmation.

“Your history tells me you’re the right guy at the right time,” Begich said. “When we get you confirmed, be bold. Not reckless, but be bold.”