VA Secretary Nominee Views IT as Key to VA Reform

Robert McDonald testified Tuesday.

Robert McDonald testified Tuesday. Associated Press

Robert McDonald says he's already met with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to discuss electronic health records.

Robert McDonald, the former Procter & Gamble chief executive and President Barack Obama’s pick to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, has been strongly endorsed by all members of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

At his nomination hearing yesterday, McDonald said he would apply his experience with information technology and leadership both in the Army and at P&G to improve patient care, customer service and the disability claims system.

A 1975 West Point graduate, McDonald said although he received an engineering degree, he also studied computer science. During his time at the academy, McDonald said he even wrote some basic computer code in assembly language.

McDonald went on to serve in top executive positions at P&G from 2007 through 2013, and said in his written testimony the company under his leadership “worked to digitize the operations of P&G from end to end, including using digital technology in remote areas to acquire and serve new customers.”

McDonald told the committee he viewed VA’s Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture, or VistA, as “world class” and said he wants to develop an “equally world-class [patient] scheduling system” to replace the Electronic Wait List system. That system, first deployed in 2002, has been the root cause of delayed treatment for veterans across the country and the ensuing investigations and scandal led to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki's resignation May 30.

Though McDonald said he viewed development of a new scheduling system as a priority, he did not provide the committee with a timeline for that. Yesterday, a VA spokeswoman told Nextgov that VA's Office of Information and Technology “is still determining what acquisition route to pursue and a potential date.”

McDonald also told the committee he has already met with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel -- at Hagel’s request -- to ensure veterans do not encounter unnecessary barriers as they transition from active service to veteran status. McDonald said this should include a compatible electronic health records system, which the two departments had pursued for years and then canceled in February 2013 because of extreme costs.

Since then, DOD and VA have pursued development of their own health records based on the concept that key information can be transferred between the two by using a system to exchange standard clinical health data. That will allow the departments to develop a single, shared electronic health record without having to build a joint system from scratch.

McDonald told the hearing some advances have been made on compatible DOD-VA record systems, but based on what he knows from public accounts, “more progress needs to be made,” he said.

To address the leadership issues, which led to the patent-scheduling debacle and problems with disability claims processing, McDonald said if appointed, “on day one, I will lay out my leadership vision directly to all VA employees on a national video conference with all VA sites.”

He said he will then embark on a nationwide tour to meet top VA managers and front-line employees to emphasize the need for a veteran-focused operation conducted with the highest level of integrity and honesty.

Numerous committee members expressed frustration that for years, they experienced problems in receiving speedy responses to their oversight queries. Early on in the hearing, which stretched to nearly 2.5 hours, McDonald said he would solve that problem by providing each member of the panel with his personal cell phone number to call if they had problems.

Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said this would make McDonald, if confirmed, the first VA secretary to make such an offer. At the tail end of the hearing, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W. Va., said he and his staff also needed quicker responses to their questions -- and added a caveat that McDonald needed to be assertive in his dealings with the committee.

McDonald, who repeated his offer to provide members with his personal cell phone number, then requested Rockefeller’s number. Rockefeller, however, did not reply to this show of assertiveness as the hearing camera lingered on his frustrated grimace.