During the presidential campaign, the idea of privatizing the VA as a way to simultaneously save money and improve veteran healthcare was floated more than once by Donald Trump and his proxies. Now that Trump is a few weeks away from assuming the presidency, the current Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Bob McDonald, has gone public with some reasons why he thinks completely privatizing is a bad idea.
“Think of the VA for American medicine the way you think of what the space program did for technology in this country,” McDonald told Forbes magazine in a recent interview.
McDonald describes the benefits of the VA in its current form as a “three-legged stool” with the first leg as research and development.
“We spend $1.8 billion a year on R&D,” he said to Forbes. “VA invented the first implantable cardiac pacemaker; VA created the concept of taking an aspirin a day to ward off heart disease; VA did the first electronic medical record; VA did the first moveable prosthetic device based on implanting a chip in your brain.”
The second leg of the stool is training.
“We train 70 percent of the doctors in the country,” McDonald said in the interview. “We are the largest employer of nurses in the country, so we obviously have a big training role there.”
And the last leg is what most people think of when they hear “VA”: Patient care — something McDonald believes has improved on his watch.
“What we’ve done is open up access,” he said. “We’ve done that by opening up 4 million new square feet of space, by hiring over 1,200 new doctors, hiring over 2,300 new nurses.”
McDonald is also quick to point out that patient wait times are down and satisfaction is up.
“Our vision is to be the best customer service organization in the federal government,” he said in the Forbes interview. “And we’re making progress. We have put in place measures of effectiveness, ease, and emotion that lead to trust, and our trust number has gone from 47 percent, was the first measure, to the current measure is about 60 percent.”
Trump called McDonald a “political hack” during the campaign, and although the president-elect has, in some ways, shown he has a short memory in terms of who he’s considering for his cabinet (Romney and Haley come to mind), it’s doubtful the current VA secretary will be asked to stay on after January 20, 2017. In fact, names like Pete Hegseth and Sarah Palin have been rumored as candidates for the job.
McDonald has a straightforward view of his responsibilities and his legacy once he leaves office:
“My point of view is very simple, which is veterans have served this country,” he told Forbes. “They deserve to have the very best service. And everything I’m going to do and everything I want this organization to do is to look at every issue from the lens of the veteran rather than the lens of the bureaucracy. And I think the numbers are suggesting we’re starting to do that, but we still have a ways to go, and I’d be the first one to say that we still have a ways to go. So I’m hopeful that whoever the next Secretary is, that they will keep this progress going.”