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VA chief pick vows to fix ‘systematic failures’

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Veterans Affairs Secretary nominee Robert McDonald of Ohio is flanked by Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, left, and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, at a Senate committee hearing. (AP Photo)

Veterans Affairs Secretary nominee Robert McDonald of Ohio is flanked by Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, left, and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, at a Senate committee hearing. (AP Photo)

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama’s choice to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs pledged Tuesday to transform the beleaguered agency, saying that “systematic failures” must be addressed.

Robert McDonald cited problems with patient access to health care, transparency, accountability and integrity, among other issues.

“The seriousness of the moment demands urgent action,” McDonald told the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “The VA is in crisis. The veterans are in need. 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, 61, a former Procter & Gamble CEO and an Army veteran, said taking care of veterans is personal for him. His father served in the Army Air Corps after World War II, and his wife’s father was shot down over Europe and survived harsh treatment as a prisoner of war. Another relative was exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam and receives care from the VA, McDonald said, and a nephew is in the Air Force, deployed in the Middle East.

If confirmed by the Senate, McDonald said he would take a series of actions over his first 90 days “to deliver the needed reforms our veterans deserve.”

He said he plans to lay out a veteran-centered vision for the department and improve communication within the vast agency, which includes more than 300,000 employees in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. His plan includes frequent video conferences with employees and extensive travel to field offices around the country, he said.

No opposition surfaced during the 2½-hour hearing, and senators from both parties said McDonald appeared headed to easy confirmation.

“I believe, based on what I heard, you are going to be confirmed, and I hope that is the case,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the chairman of the Senate veterans panel, told McDonald as the hearing ended.

The Senate panel will vote today on McDonald’s nomination, Sanders said, with a vote by the full Senate likely before the August recess.

Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas was among a host of Republicans to declare support for McDonald, a Republican who supported GOP nominee Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election.

Moran was the first senator to call for Eric Shinseki to step down as VA secretary this spring. Shinseki resigned May 30 amid a growing uproar over treatment delays and falsified records at VA hospitals and clinics nationwide, including reports that dozens died awaiting treatment.

The VA’s acting inspector general has confirmed investigations of possible wrongdoing at 87 VA medical facilities nationwide.

The path for a bill to reform the VA is decidedly rockier.

The Senate approved a bill last month authorizing $35 billion through 2016 to build new clinics, hire doctors and make it easier for veterans who can’t get prompt appointments with VA doctors to get outside care. The measure closely tracks a bill passed by the House, but lawmakers have balked at the Senate measure’s price tag.

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