Obama Taps Former Procter & Gamble Chief To Helm VA

President Obama has picked Robert McDonald, the former CEO of Procter & Gamble, to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs. If confirmed by the Senate, McDonald will face a difficult task. The VA is is embroiled in a controversy over falsified and lengthy wait times for veterans.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

President Obama has decided on his choice to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs. He has nominated Robert McDonald, the former CEO of Procter & Gamble. This afternoon the president introduced him at the VA, here in Washington.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What especially makes Bob the right choice to lead the VA right now is his three decades of experience in building and managing one of the world's most recognized companies, Procter & Gamble. The VA is not a business. But it is one of our largest departments.

SIEGEL: If McDonald is confirmed by the Senate, he will take over an agency embroiled in a controversy over falsified and lengthy wait times for veterans. NPR Veterans Affairs correspondent Quil Lawrence joins us now. And Quil, President Obama made the case that Robert McDonald's experience at Procter & Gamble qualifies him to lead the VA. What do we know about his career?

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Well the White House has been stressing that before Procter & Gamble, McDonald graduated near the top of his class at West Point, was an Army Ranger - that was back in 1975, and he spent just five years in the Army. He left as a captain - sort of a contrast to some of the combat veterans and the former generals who've led the VA in the recent past. McDonald got out of the Army and took a job at Procter & Gamble and he stayed there 30 years. He's credited with taking over the helm during the financial crisis in 2009, but just four years later he left Procter & Gamble at a time where there were questions about profitability. This might suggest that the White House is interested in an experienced manager who can focus on customer service a lot of VA observers and experts have pointed out the VA doesn't fight wars. It delivers services and runs hospitals.

SIEGEL: The White House has said that there is a, quote, "corrosive culture and chronic system of failures," unquote, at the VA. What exactly does that mean, and how might McDonald try to address those problems?

LAWRENCE: The culture they're talking about is really about the recent scandal where bureaucrats at the VA lied about how many veterans were waiting more than 14 days for an appointment because their bonuses depended on that. So when former VA Secretary Shinseki resigned last month, he seemed genuinely baffled that some of his officials were lying to him about something as solemn as veterans' health. The White House, today, says that was a - 14 days was an unrealistic goal, and that someone with more business experience might be quicker to see that and stop people from gaming the system.

SIEGEL: Well, can the waitlist problem actually be fixed?

LAWRENCE: There's a bipartisan support - there's bipartisan support to reform the VA. There's just not a lot of agreement on how to do that and how to pay for it. Generally speaking, everyone on the Hill wants more accountability and transparency at the VA. Most agree that the scheduling system, which dates back to before the Internet, needs to be updated. But there are also some familiar bits of debate from the healthcare - the previous healthcare debate with Republicans suggesting private sector fixes and Democrats suggesting that the VA needs to hire more doctors and lease more hospitals.

SIEGEL: Back to the nomination of McDonald - what's the reaction been today?

LAWRENCE: It's pretty positive so far. Veterans service organizations have expressed some hope that McDonald go at the task with a sense of urgency. Some of these VSO's can't endorse candidates by their own bylaws, but they have shown that they can bring them down. It was the American Legion's call for Shinseki's resignation that probably put that in motion. On the Hill - well, McDonald's contributed to a lot of Republican candidates in the past. And the White House probably had that in mind when they nominated him to try and help ease his confirmation. The Democrats have seemed a little bit more cautious and more muted and, perhaps, concerned about a private sector CEO coming in to turn around the VA.

SIEGEL: OK, thanks Quil.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Quil Lawrence.

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