VA’s McDonald: 2016 can be a turning point for department

Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald continued to stump for legislative and fiscal support of his agency, as the countdown continues to tick toward congressional summer recess.

Speaking to an audience gathered June 20 at the Brookings Institution, McDonald said the “window of opportunity is closing fast” when it comes to passing a legislative reform package and a budget for VA.

“If Congress doesn’t act on these transformational changes, VA will not be able to complete its transformation and veterans will have to settle for a VA that is not as responsive to their needs; there’s no question about that,” McDonald said. “If Congress acts, we’ll all look back on this year as the year we turned the corner for veterans.”

Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson will likely give a similar warning later this week. He’s scheduled to testify June 23 before the House Veterans Affairs Committee, on VA’s plans to overhaul the department and the help it needs from Capitol Hill.

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Falling short

VA requested $78.7 billion in discretionary funding for fiscal 2017, including $7.2 billion in discretionary funding for veterans’ care in the community programs under the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act.

The House budget markup proposes a $1.5 billion reduction to the fiscal 2017 budget request.

“Let’s be clear, that reduction will hurt veterans, it will impede critical initiatives necessary to transform VA into the high performing organization veterans deserve,” McDonald said. “We’ve put together what I think is an outstanding transformational plan for the VA, but frankly if we don’t get the budget and we don’t get the law changes we need from Congress, we’re gonna fall short of what we could otherwise do.”

The Senate VA Committee passed the Veterans First Act in mid May without amendment. The bill would reclassify VA medical center directors and health care professionals under Title 38, meaning the secretary would have the authority to appoint, pay, appraise and discipline many of the department’s senior executives.

McDonald said the omnibus includes a lot of the legislative reforms VA supports.

He also went through the laundry list of goals and “breakthrough strategies” the department is currently working on under MyVA.

The five long-term goals are:

  • Improving the veteran experience.
  • Improving employee experience.
  • Achieving support service excellence.
  • Establishing a culture of continuous performance improvement.
  • Encouraging strategic partnerships.

The 12 strategies support those long-term goals, with eight of them related to direct improvements to veteran experience.

“The idea that VA can’t be fixed, or that we’re not fixing it, is just nonsense,” McDonald said. “We are fixing it, we’re just not finished yet, we still have work to do.”

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