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Biden’s VA pick, Denis McDonough, tells lawmakers he’ll fight for veterans

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/28/2021 Lisa Rein

Denis McDonough, President Biden’s nominee for Veterans Affairs secretary, told senators Wednesday that although he is not a veteran, “I’m a fighter, and I’m relentless,” and that he would succeed if confirmed.

McDonough would be the 11th VA secretary since the agency was elevated to a Cabinet-level organization in 1989 but only its second non-veteran leader. Some veterans groups have raised questions about his lack of military experience, and McDonough addressed the issue head on.

“I’m not telling you that I’m a vet,” McDonough, 51, said at his confirmation hearing, “but I’m telling you that I’ve come to understand the massive sacrifices they’ve made and the skill with which they’ve done it.”

President Donald Trump’s first VA secretary, David Shulkin, a physician and former hospital executive, also was not a veteran.

McDonough was President Barack Obama’s chief of staff and served in senior roles on the National Security Council and on Capitol Hill. That career in public service, he said, had prepared him to lead a sprawling agency beset by a range of challenges — from providing health care and benefits to veterans to communicating with Congress.

“I can unstick problems inside agencies and across agencies, especially at an agency as large as VA,” McDonough told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

VA, the second-largest federal agency, includes health-care services for 9 million veterans, a vast benefits bureaucracy and dozens of national cemeteries.

McDonough’s approximately 90-minute hearing was notable for its bipartisan tone, and an easy confirmation is expected by the full Senate.

McDonough said he was unlikely to seek big changes to the program he helped create in 2014 when Congress expanded private health-care options to veterans outside the government-run system to create a hybrid system.

“I do not support privatization,” he told Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has long been suspicious of Trump’s expansion of the program as a means to close VA hospitals.

“I do recognize that community care [provided by private doctors] will continue to be a part of how the VA provides care to veterans,” McDonough said.

To Republicans concerned that the Biden administration might restrict outside care, McDonough said he did not foresee big changes, although he said he would work to improve on administrative problems that plague the system.

Among his first priorities would be ensuring that veterans and their health-care providers get vaccinated against the coronavirus. Veterans in VA care and its medical staff have logged 198,000 virus cases since the pandemic started.

“Your chief responsibility during this unprecedented time will be to save as many lives as possible,” Committee Chairman Jon Tester (D-Mont.), told McDonough.

Sen. Mazie Hirono ­(D-Hawaii) pressed him to set a specific goal, as the president has for the country, for the number of veterans he hopes to get vaccinated by a certain date.

Tester asked how McDonough planned to address sexual harassment at VA, an issue faced by many female veterans. McDonough pledged to “lean into this issue” on Day 1 “to try to set a culture that underscores that such activity will not be tolerated.”

The issue provided an unstated counterpoint to former secretary Robert Wilkie, who was found by investigators in a December report by VA’s inspector general to have campaigned to discredit a congressional aide who said she was sexually assaulted at VA’s medical center in the District.

Wilkie disputed the report’s conclusions.

Lawmakers also sought assurances from McDonough that he would communicate with them and provide them answers to their questions. Wilkie’s relationship with House and Senate lawmakers in both parties soured as he refused to appear at hearings, and on Wednesday, two senators did not hesitate to share their concerns.

“Those of us who will ask questions don’t want to get a response that’s off point and finally it tapers out,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.). McDonough promised to work with Congress in a “collaborative and consultative way.”

McDonough’s nomination caught veterans groups off guard because they had hoped to see someone who served in the post-9/11 era take the job. Those concerns seem to have ebbed.

McDonough said he got a taste of the veteran’s life on trips to Iraq and Afghanistan while he served in the Obama White House. He said he saw the effects of long deployments on families and regularly visited wounded troops at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

Denis McDonough wearing glasses talking on a cell phone: Denis McDonough, President Biden’s nominee for secretary of Veterans Affairse, speaks during a Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee confirmation hearing on Wednesday. © Pool/Reuters Denis McDonough, President Biden’s nominee for secretary of Veterans Affairse, speaks during a Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee confirmation hearing on Wednesday.
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