Secretary Robert McDonald delivered his first address to Disabled American Veterans at their annual conference on Aug. 9, 2014. His speech outlined the problems facing Veterans Affairs and the way ahead. He also reported on his recent visit to the Phoenix VA Medical Center, citing the issues that Veterans are personally telling him. Secretary McDonald also committed to collaborating with veteran service organizations such as DAV and marked it as a top priority in order to make the right changes in the days ahead.
He began by thanking DAV and looking forward.
“It is an honor and a privilege to give my first address as secretary to Disabled American Veterans,” McDonald said. “DAV’s contributions to VA reform discussions on Capitol Hill and across the nation have been of great help—without ever compromising the strong support and confidence you have given to VA for so long. Moving forward, that sort of counsel is going to remain invaluable to me, and I look forward to hearing it.”
Prior to arriving in Las Vegas to address DAV, Secretary McDonald stopped at the Phoenix VA Health Care System. He told the DAV audience, “There are good people there. They care about serving Veterans, and they are working hard to fix that system so they can provide superior service to Veterans.”
McDonald stressed that although Phoenix and VA have problems and issues with “failed leadership … [Phoenix] is also a story about how some dedicated people who have had the moral courage to stand up and help us serve Veterans better.”
He also highlighted previous remarks by Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson, saying “We can turn these challenges into the greatest opportunity for improvement in the history of the department.”
He also spoke of actions that VA is taking and will take to improve services and accountability, saying, “We know that we cannot tackle all these issues long-term without critical cultural change and accountability.”
“We are making good progress in getting Veterans off wait lists and fixing scheduling problems,” McDonald said. “We have reached out to over 240,000 Veterans to get them off wait lists and into clinics sooner.”
In the last two months, he said, VA has made more than 791,000 referrals for care in the private sector. In all, McDonald said referrals over the last two months have resulted in about 1.1 million additional appointments.
In addition, “Facilities are adding more clinic hours. We are aggressively recruiting to fill physician vacancies,” he said. And, “We are deploying mobile medical units and using temporary staffing resources to provide care to more Veterans as quickly as possible in all our healthcare facilities.”
As VA is taking these steps, the appointment scheduling system is being updated and VA is contracting with an outside organization to audit scheduling practices across VHA. Medical center and VISN directors have been directed to conduct regular monthly in-person inspections of clinics – including interacting with scheduling staff – to assess scheduling practices and identify any obstacles to timely care for Veterans.
Overall, VA is looking at ways to update, reorganize or streamline processes and technologies to make providing health care to Veterans a better, more effective experience.
“We are building a more robust, continuous system for measuring patient satisfaction, to provide real-time, site-specific information on patient satisfaction,” he said. “Finally, we are improving communication between the field and the central office, between employees and leadership, and with DAV and other veterans service organizations and stakeholders.”
McDonald said he was grateful to the president and Congress for the opportunity to lead VA, and that he has a lot to learn, as quickly as possible.
“But I know this already—the fastest, most up-to-date technology and systems are no substitute for looking at ourselves through the eyes of Veterans,” he said. “When we do that, our direction and requirements will be crystal clear.”
Before coming to VA, McDonald spent 33 years at Proctor & Gamble, where he learned the importance of effective management, strong leadership and of being responsive to the needs of customers. “At P&G, we worked hard—and successfully—to improve the lives of the world’s consumers. Many of those lessons will help us change VA to better serve Veterans,” he said.
McDonald and his wife, Diane, both come from military families. His father served in the Army Air Corps after World War II and hers was a tail gunner in a B-25 during World War II. Her father was shot down over Europe and survived harsh treatment as a POW. Diane’s uncle served in Vietnam and also was a POW. He still receives care from VA. McDonald’s nephew is a pilot in the Air Force who serves and flies missions in the Middle East.
The secretary graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1975 with Gibson, and after West Point spent time as an Airborne Ranger in the 82nd Airborne Division.
“The words of that West Point Cadet Prayer still guide me, four decades later. It encourages us ‘to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong,'” he said.
Read Secretary McDonald’s full remarks to DAVat http://www.va.gov/opa/pressrel/pressrelease.cfm?id=2605