Trump Under Increasing Pressure to Keep Obama VA Secretary

McDonald's record out-of-step with tenets of Trump's VA reform plan

Robert McDonald
Robert McDonald / AP
December 15, 2016

Donald Trump is under increasing pressure from veterans organizations to retain Robert McDonald as the secretary of Veterans Affairs, though the president-elect's plan to reform the agency differs from efforts undertaken by McDonald during his tenure.

Twenty veterans organizations wrote to Trump urging him to keep McDonald in a letter sent Wednesday, citing his "proven track record" as VA secretary and leadership of an "enterprise-wide transformation" of the troubled federal agency. They joined the leaders of the nation's largest veterans groups—the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vietnam Veterans of America, and AMVETS—who urged Trump's transition team to retain McDonald in a meeting last Friday.

McDonald, an Army veteran and former CEO of Procter & Gamble, took over the agency following the resignation of Eric Shinseki amid controversy over employees' use of fake waiting lists in 2014. McDonald has spearheaded efforts to reform the VA, which has been criticized for problems with patient care and persisting wait times.

Trump has pledged to bring further transformation to the VA, unveiling a 10-point plan in July that echoes numerous reform efforts brought forth by Republicans in Congress. Several tenets of Trump's plan are out-of-step with statements made and actions taken by McDonald.

Trump wants to implement legislation that would empower the VA secretary "to discipline or terminate any employee who has jeopardized the health, safety, or well-being of a veteran," which Republicans sought to pass during the 114th Congress.

The Obama administration has criticized repeated congressional efforts to expand the VA's firing powers, threatening to veto legislation in 2015 that would allow the VA secretary to demote or remove employees for misconduct or poor performance. Rep. Jeff Miller (R., Fla.), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, told the Washington Free Beacon last year that McDonald had also refused to support the legislation.

Under McDonald, the VA stopped using fast-track firing powers for high-level employees provided by 2014 reform legislation after the Justice Department deemed them unconstitutional earlier this year, opening the agency up to criticism from lawmakers and veterans groups.

"We're using the old procedure," McDonald said in June, defending the decision. "The old procedure is fine. Frankly, the new procedure just affects the amount of time for appeals. It really didn't affect the process all that much."

McDonald has also been criticized for firing few people in connection with the 2014 wait list scandal and for overstating the number of individuals that the agency has sought to discipline for fudging waitlists.

Trump has also forecasted his willingness to curtail bonuses to VA employees. His VA plan states that the president-elect "will stop giving bonuses to any VA employees who are wasting money, and start rewarding employees who seek to improve the VA's service, cut waste, and save lives."

The Obama administration has opposed legislative efforts to cap bonuses given to VA employees and McDonald has also defended the agency for handing out bonus payments to officials during the period of the wait list scandal, when veterans were found to have died waiting for care.

The VA handed out over $142 million in bonuses in 2014, according to a tally by USA Today, including bonuses that were paid out to officials who managed the VA hospital in Tomah, Wisconsin, that overprescribed opiates to patients and executives who oversaw the troubled $1.7 billion Aurora VA construction project.

"The vast majority of employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs provide America's veterans exceptional service," McDonald wrote in an op-ed for the publication last year.

"Severely curtailing or ending awards, only in VA, would be a mistake, negatively impacting veterans and our ability to attract top talent."

The agency went on to award over $177 million in bonuses to employees in 2015, according to the latest analysis by USA Today.

The Obama administration has also objected to provisions of legislation introduced by Miller this year that would limit bonuses paid out to senior VA executives, arguing that it would prevent the VA from "rewarding its high-performing senior executives." The bill passed the House with bipartisan support in September.

Trump has pledged to ensure that "every veteran has the choice to seek care at the VA or at a private service provider of their own choice," echoing Republican lawmakers who say that veterans should be able to go outside of the VA for health care. Democrats have accused Republicans of trying to "privatize" the VA by offering similar proposals.

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) introduced legislation in April that would make the Choice Program established by the 2014 reform legislation universal, allowing all individuals eligible for VA health care to visit doctors outside the agency's network.

Current VA leadership has opposed the bill. Sloan Gibson, McDonald's deputy VA secretary, said during May testimony before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs that the department had "serious concerns" about the provision, arguing that it would likely result in the VA having to "divert resources away from the provision of internal VA care."

"While it may be an appealing notion to make Veterans Choice universal, we believe such legislation would create a dynamic that could lead to serious erosion in VA's ability to address the critical special needs of veterans, in a system that was created to serve their needs," Gibson said.

Several names have been floated as possible VA secretaries under the Trump administration, including Miller, former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, and Pete Hegseth, an Army veteran and former CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative veterans group. Hegseth met with Trump at Trump Tower in New York for the second time on Thursday and is rumored to be a favorite for the Cabinet position.

Leaders of the veterans groups took issue with all of the potential choices during a discussion with the transition team last week, the New York Times reported, and singled out McDonald as the best choice given his private sector experience and efforts to reform the agency.

While McDonald has received some praise for his MyVA transformation plan, the VA secretary has also been subject to scrutiny. McDonald faced criticism from both parties, including some demands for his resignation, when he likened wait times at VA hospitals to lines at Disney theme parks in May.

Numerous watchdog reports have cast light on continuing shortcomings at the VA hospital system. An independent assessment released last year deemed the federally run hospital network in need of "system-wide reworking."

It is unclear whether Trump is considering keeping McDonald on, or if the VA secretary has met with the president-elect. Neither the VA nor Trump's transition team responded to questions about Trump's possible consideration of McDonald.