Members of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs unanimously approved the nomination of former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald Wednesday to run the scandal-plagued U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
President Barack Obama nominated McDonald as the next secretary of the VA in June after Eric Shinseki resigned from the position amid the unmasking of mismanaged health care facilities and hidden patient wait lists. The full Senate will have to hurry to vote on whether or not to confirm McDonald's nomination before the body adjourns for its August recess July 31.
In Alaska -- where the highest rate of veterans in relation to population tops that of any other state -- the VA healthcare system has remained a hot-button issue as the national turmoil unfolds.
Sen. Mark Begich's re-election campaign has battled with a Washington, D.C.-based independent political group in a series of advertisements about the senator and veterans' issues. Meanwhile, Sen. Lisa Murkowski has called for an independent investigation into the Wasilla VA clinic where the administration has struggled to retain physicians.
Begich, a VA committee member, said in an interview after Wednesday's vote that he was confident McDonald could clean up the VA by capitalizing on innovative ways to deliver health care and "thinking outside of the box."
He said he met privately with McDonald Wednesday afternoon following the committee hearing to discuss a variety of VA issues including suggesting that McDonald use the Alaska VA as an example for handling long waitlists. A nationwide audit released by the VA June 9 said that at the Alaska VA Healthcare System in Anchorage, 99 percent of veterans could schedule appointments within 30 days.
"It's a big ship that he has to maneuver," Begich said. "But I think we have some examples that can help him improve the national delivery system."
About two years ago, the Alaska VA began partnering with medical providers like Southcentral Foundation and, most recently, the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center. It sends veterans outside of the system for care.
At Murkowski's office, spokesperson Matthew Felling said that the senator had not yet established a stance on McDonald's nomination, though she is still concerned about transparency, whistleblower protection and efficiency within the VA.
"Long story short, we don't have a take on him yet, because we haven't met him yet," Felling said.
In his testimony before the VA committee Tuesday, McDonald, 61, identified himself as a husband, father and grandfather with strong roots in military service. He attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and served in the 82nd Airborne Division before joining the massive consumer goods company Procter & Gamble.
He laid out a series of immediate actions that he would deploy, which included renewing the VA's strategic plan, asking all employees to bring forward systemic problems and improving communication.
"There is a lot of work to do to transform the department and it will not be easy, but it is essential and can be achieved," McDonald said.