DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And let's hear more about that nomination that Cokie just mentioned. Bob McDonald was CEO of Procter & Gamble, and now if confirmed by the Senate, he'll be running the Department of Veterans Affairs. The White House says that agency is under-resourced and is suffering from a, quote, "corrosive culture that led staff to fake their reports about how long veterans are waiting to get health care." Here to talk to us about that more, NPR veterans correspondent Quil Lawrence. Quil, good morning.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: So what can you tells us about Bob McDonald?
LAWRENCE: Well the pick's a surprise; it wasn't really on any if the short lists that were kicking around, in public anyway. McDonald graduated from the U.S. military Academy at West Point in 1975, near the top of his class. But he only stayed in the Army about five years, and he finishing up as a captain, then took an entry-level job at Procter and Gamble and worked his way up to president and CEO. So the White House is touting his achievements there, managing a Fortune 500 company with 120,000 employees. The VA has double - more than double that number, but it's in the ballpark.
GREENE: You say a surprise candidate, I mean, not a medical background, you know. He did go to West Point, but that was 35 years ago. They're touting his job at Proctor and Gamble. I'm just putting things together here. Are they really focusing on someone with management skills to try and come in and help this agency?
LAWRENCE: Yeah, that's the main conclusion people are reaching this morning. The White House says that McDonald has stayed involved with the military. He's got vets in his family. His uncle was exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam and gets care at the VA. But the pick follows some suggestions that the VA doesn't need a former military general but more an expert on customer service and someone who knows how to oversee a $100-billion budget and a huge civilian staff. And in the light of recent scandals, I guess the business term would be a turnaround expert.
GREENE: A turnaround expert. Yeah, I mean, the agency has been in the news and in a lot of trouble. And I mean, just give us a sense of, you know, the job ahead if he is indeed confirmed, Quil.
LAWRENCE: Well, the VA has this double whammy of vets coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan who did more deployments on average than other veterans. They have high rates of PTSD and blast wounds like traumatic brain injury. And at the same time, there are about 10 million vets from Vietnam and earlier wars who are hitting their 70s and 80s, and they need the kind of medical care that older people need.
So they're all put into this system that using scheduling software that is from before the Internet was invented. So the former head of the VA, General Eric Shinseki, tried to put a goal in place, that all patients would be seen within 14 days of when they asked for an appointment. The White House now says that that was an unrealistic goal, but the bureaucrats in the VA, their bonuses depended on it. So many of them lied about how quickly they were seeing their patients so they could be appearing to meet that goal.
GREENE: You talk about the burden that the agency is facing right now. I mean, in terms of the customer service that Bob McDonald will be trying to bring, these long wait times - I mean, not the only complaints that veterans have been concerned about.
LAWRENCE: No. There are a lot of issues, though the scheduling one is more on the veterans health side. That's one of three branches at the VA. There are plenty of other health issues like - especially mental health and the high rate of suicide among veterans, perhaps 22 per day. On the benefits and disability compensation side, things have improved with the backlog we heard a lot about last year. But Vets are still really clamoring for a more user-friendly system, maybe one where the Pentagon and the VA could have one electronic record that could easily pass between the two huge bureaucracies.
GREENE: Quil, Renee and Cokie just spoke about the relationship between the president and Congress right now. It's not exactly rosy. When it comes to Veterans Affairs, I mean, there is a bipartisan VA reform bill that might be soon going to the president's desk. Even with all this contentious feel right now, could this be a nomination that goes through free of election year politics?
LAWRENCE: Maybe. We're initially hearing positive signs from senators in both parties, particularly Republican senators coming out and saying this is a good man with business experience. But even as you hear them coming out in respond - a positive response, you can see the larger health care debate playing out. I mean, Democrats will say, sounds like a good man, but we want to see if he's committed to sufficiently staffing the VA and repairing its infrastructure. Republicans say, he's a good man, but he needs to purge this corrupt staff and use more market-based solutions to solve problems within veterans health.
GREENE: All right, NPR's Quil Lawrence. Thanks a lot, Quil.
LAWRENCE: Thank you.
GREENE: You heard him on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
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