WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s choice to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs said Tuesday he would make it a priority to tackle backlogs of benefit claims, with Nevada veterans suffering from some of the longest waits in the nation.
Robert McDonald told senators at a confirmation hearing that pulling apart the claims process would be “one of my first jobs” if confirmed to the Cabinet post.
“We’ve got to get ahead of this claims backlog,” McDonald told members of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs. “We’ve got to find a way to get it down and get it down quickly so the veterans are getting the care they deserve.”
McDonald, 61, a former Procter & Gamble chief executive and an Army veteran, promised senators quick action on a range of problems including patient access to health care, transparency, accountability and integrity.
He pledged a series of actions within 90 days “to deliver the needed reforms our veterans deserve.”
The first order of business, he said, would be to gather VA employees in a video conference to lay out the agency’s mission and stress ”how unacceptable it is to behave in a way that’s inconsistent with the mission and the values.” The agency employs more than 300,000 people.
McDonald was quizzed on claims backlogs by Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., the co-leader of a Senate task force that produced a report earlier this year confirming that the VA’s regional office in Reno, which handles disability claims from Nevada veterans and some in Northern California, had the slowest rate of handling benefit requests.
It takes an average 339.6 days for the Reno office to complete a compensation claim, according to the latest VA statistics. The average among 16 regional offices in the West is 248 days, and 263 days among all VA offices.
“I don’t think there’s any secret my priority is addressing the VA backlog, especially in light of the fact that Nevada has the worst backlog in the country,” Heller said.
Heller said after the hearing he was leaning toward voting for McDonald. Other senators said he was likely to win confirmation.
At the hearing, the Nevada Republican told McDonald the VA has a way to go to repair its image in Nevada, where “many are doubtful it will ever improve.”
He said 6,100 veterans were unable to get an appointment within 30 days at the VA hospital in North Las Vegas, and the town of Pahrump has waited more than two years for an outpatient clinic.
The North Las Vegas hospital also came under scrutiny in its treatment of blind 78-year-old Navy veteran Sandi Niccum, who waited with stomach pain almost five hours in the emergency room last October without personnel checking on her condition during the wait.
Heller also warned McDonald that regional VA officials have painted a “rosy picture” of progress in Nevada, which he said has turned out to be false as audits have revealed alarming error rates in claims processing.
Heller, who had called for the VA to replace the director of the Reno office, asked the nominee if he would evaluate that operation and others and “make leadership changes where they are necessary?”
“I’ve done that throughout all my careers beginning in the U.S. Army,” McDonald responded.
Contact Steve Tetreault at email@example.com or 202-783-1760. Find him on Twitter: @STetreaultDC.