Paul Rieckhoff says the President-elect needs to fulfill his promises on veterans
He should keep current VA Secretary Bob McDonald, who's reforming the agency, Rieckhoff says
He says Trump hasn't met with top veterans' service organizations as President-elect
Editor’s Note: Paul Rieckhoff is an Iraq veteran, the founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and the author of “Chasing Ghosts.” Follow him on Twitter @PaulRieckhoff.
In 2014, the nation watched in outrage as the Veterans Affairs scandal erupted in Phoenix. When the widespread failures surfaced and later VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned, a massive void was left to be filled and a huge undertaking needed to turn around the second largest government agency.
VA’s brand was shattered. Every veterans group in America was pleading for overdue reform and a 21st century VA. The time was ripe to achieve it. But it also presented unparalleled resources with a budget around $180 billion and more than 300,000 employees – many of whom were veterans themselves. This was our once-in-a-generation moment to turn a crisis into an opportunity.
As the secretary position lay vacant, speculation as to the next leader of the largest integrated health care system in the United States abounded. At the time, IAVA called for the President to appoint a post-9/11 veteran, or someone very familiar with our growing, diverse community – someone who was a proven, dynamic public servant we could trust. A leader who was a unique hybrid – a proactive change agent who understood a changing community of over 21 million veterans, and also had a mastery of technology, health care, the media and Congress. We got that leader in Bob McDonald.
As soon as this week, President-elect Donald Trump could finally announce his pick to be the next VA secretary. Over the last month, lots of folks have visited Trump Tower, including rapper Kanye West. But not a single leader from our nation’s leading veteran service organizations has been invited upstairs.
So far the only engagement between the veterans’ organizations and the transition was a behind-the-scenes meeting with opening remarks by reality TV star Omarosa Manigault.
Names in the news as prospective VA chiefs have flown scattershot and range from Sarah Palin to Scott Brown. None has the critical skills our veterans deserve right now. We need a leader with business savvy, who embraces values-based leadership, and who will continue the momentum initiated in the last two years. Bob McDonald is that kind of leader.
As a Republican, West Point graduate and former CEO of Procter and Gamble, if McDonald wasn’t already VA secretary, he’d likely be among Trump’s top candidates. He’s reflective of the attitude, career of private sector success and Washington outsider profile President-elect Trump has already chosen in so many of his other appointments.
In 2014, after undertaking his own assessment of VA, Bob McDonald presented Congress with a plan to transform the organization. Leaders on both sides of the aisle and the veteran community agreed that this was the right strategy. Since then, an independent commission (the Commission on Care) has laid out a similar framework and multiple independent assessments have concurred.
That framework is one that embraces a more integrated system of health care that provides a balance between the critical services that VA provides to veterans and the need for community partners to supplement where VA cannot provide that care. It addresses the outdated infrastructure and lagging IT systems at the VA. It tackles the need for change agents in leadership positions and addresses the challenges to holding failed leaders accountable. In short, it provides a comprehensive plan to move the VA into the 21st century.
When you’re deep in the middle of a fight, it’s not the time to change horses. In 2008, President Obama recognized this after his election by wisely retaining the fantastic Bob Gates to continue leading the Pentagon. It was a bipartisan move that gave our troops the extended leadership of one of the finest leaders of our time.
Now is not the time to stop the progress or change the course. In just two years, the VA has continued to have some very high-profile challenges. No doubt it’s been bumpy. But outside the media attention, it has also achieved more than we expected. There have been major access improvements, more integration of technology, addressing of leadership challenges, and the opening of doors to public-private partnerships. The veteran service organizations have been a welcome partner in all this.
This is not just McDonald’s plan. It belongs to all of us now. As demand for VA services ranging from mental health care to the post-9/11 GI Bill continues to grow and change rapidly, this is no time to throw it all out and start over. And it’s definitely not the time to introduce radical change like full-scale privatization, which most of the leading veterans groups ferociously oppose.
IAVA members, 80% of whom are enrolled in VA health care, want to see the VA improve. They like VA care, but also note that it has its challenges. And while certainly not perfect, the VA is on the right path to reform. That is despite a dangerously divided Congress and a painful lack of adequate support and attention from President Obama.
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The Trump administration and the next VA secretary will inherit many challenges in continuing to reform the VA. They will also inherit the opportunity to do what no modern president has done: fix the VA.
Candidate Trump often said on the campaign trail that veterans’ issues were a priority of his campaign. Veterans of all generations responded and voted for him by nearly two-to-one. Now, it’s time for him to show us we’ll be a priority of his presidency.
The job of VA secretary might be the second hardest in Washington, especially in a time of seemingly never-ending war. But just like we saw in combat, no leader can win alone. We’re all in this together. And America’s veteran service organizations are the air support, intelligence network and ground forces critical to supporting the fight. We are the troops in this battle for reform. And our choice for our leader is clear. Our incoming commander in chief should hear our calls.