CABINET HEARING: Denis McDonough, Nominee for Secretary of Veterans Affairs

January 27, 2021, Committee on Veterans’ Affairs

Questions from Senators touched on topics including choice of healthcare, privatization of healthcare, modernization at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and community care. Throughout the hearing, McDonough made it very clear that every decision he makes as Veterans Affairs Secretary will be based upon whether it improves medical outcomes and care for veterans. 

ISSUES RAISED

  • Choice – Senator Mike Rounds (R-SD) asked what McDonough will do to ensure that veterans maintain choice in where they receive healthcare. McDonough said any credible strategy as it relates to rural care for veterans must have three components: community care, using access to new platforms, and getting more aggressive with the authorities given to the VA from Congress.
  • Privatization – Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) asked how to reverse the privatization trend and fund the VA so that veterans can get the care in a timely manner that they deserve. McDonough said every decision he will make will be based on if it can improve outcomes and/or access to care. He stated he does not support privatization and realizes that community care will be a part of how the VA provides care for veterans. However, McDonough said it must be ensured that the integrated health model continues to draw on the success and excellence that is seen throughout its workforce.
  • Modernization – Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) said one of the largest problems facing the VA is the implementation of the electronic health record modernization program and emphasized the importance of ensuring veterans have access to high quality care at the VA while also ensuring the success of modernization efforts.  
  • Community Care – Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS) asked whether McDonough will hold up the access standards to community care and whether he plans to change any. McDonough said that community care will be a key part of how the VA will continue to care for its veterans. Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) asked McDonough to clarify of what he meant when he said the “right balance of care” and asked whether he would commit to not rollback standards. McDonough said community care will provide care to veterans, adding that the statute is clear that the best medical outcome for the veteran is the goal. He noted that every decision will come back to the two main questions of whether this decision will improve outcomes and increase access to care.

TAKEAWAY

McDonough, who served as President Obama’s Chief of Staff and Deputy National Security Advisor, would oversee the federal government’s second largest agency. While McDonough does not have military experience, he touted his ability to understand the federal government, saying: “I can unstick problems inside agencies, and especially at an agency as big as the VA, that’s important. I will deliver if I’m confirmed as secretary.” The VA is facing multiple issues that McDonough will need to manage and fix; COVID-19 has ravaged the department as almost 9,000 veterans and 120 VA workers have died from the virus, the need to tackle veteran suicide rates and homelessness, and resolving access to care in rural areas. 

WHAT’S NEXT?

Little resistance to McDonough’s nomination is expected. Republicans on the Committee signaled their support for McDonough, with leading Republican Jerry Moran (R-KS) telling McDonough he would vote for his confirmation.