Denis McDonough ’s confirmation Feb. 8 as the new VA secretary received overwhelming bipartisan support – an 87-7 vote reflecting the collaborative and consultative relationship the administration and Congress want to foster between the executive and legislative branches.
McDonough made it clear during his Jan. 27 confirmation hearing that once he took his new post, he and the president will “fight like hell to give our veterans and their families the health care, respect, and dignity they deserve.”
McDonough has a long history of public service, beginning in 1996 when he worked as an aide for the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. He continued working in Congress until 2008, when he joined then-Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign; he took on multiple roles in the Obama administration, serving as senior policy adviser and deputy national security adviser before becoming White House chief of staff from 2013 to 2017.
McDonough’s path to becoming the secretary of VA is a result of his lifetime passion for public service. His wife, Kari McDonough, has devoted her work to serving veterans in the community; she is the president and co-founder of Vets’ Community Connections, a nonprofit organization that assists veterans with community integration.
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The new secretary spoke at length about his priorities and the commitment he will bring to the position during his confirmation hearing. “I will dedicate every fiber of my being to care for them and their families upon their return from defending the country,” he said, adding that he would “restore trust in VA and be a fierce, staunch advocate for veterans.”
The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs cleared the path for the secretary’s confirmation. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), the new committee chair, and ranking member Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), the committee’s former chair, offered clear direction to the then-nominee: The well-being of veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors must come above all else.
Both leaders stressed the important work and daunting challenges facing the secretary — leading the VA through the pandemic, saving as many lives as possible, and overseeing the massive reforms across the VA enterprise.
“If you put veterans first, you will succeed,” Tester told McDonough.
Moran further emphasized the message: “As secretary you must be ready on day one to continue implementing the reforms passed in recent years. … You must also put veterans at the center of their health care — not VA making the decision where veterans will get their care.”
McDonough pledged his support and cooperation, and assured members that any veteran-related decision made by him and his staff will be guided by two questions: Does it improve access to care, and will it result in better outcomes for veterans?
What Can Veterans Expect?
The new secretary outlined several of his priorities, many of which are in line with MOAA’s and those of other veterans organizations. MOAA’s ongoing efforts to improve the VA were included in a recent letter to President Joe Biden, and were outlined further in a recap of veteran health care priorities.
McDonough’s veteran health care priorities include:
- Offer serious communication and a commitment to providing VA employees and veterans with protective equipment, care, testing, and vaccines to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Provide strict oversight and implementation of the 2018 VA MISSION Act, including the rollout of VA’s community care and new caregiver programs, along with newer legislation designed to expand mental health services and suicide prevention programs, such as:
- Ease access to reproductive services, including fertility treatments such as in vitro fertilization for veterans.
- Improve oversight and implementation of the joint VA-DoD electronic health record.
- Address longstanding concerns of access to care for veterans living in rural areas.
- Eliminate health disparities and improve equity of care for women, underserved, and minority veterans.
- Provide strict oversight of VA infrastructure modernization and facility realignment.
- Expand veterans’ access to dental care.
The new secretary also outlined his priority list for other VA benefits programs:
- Expand GI Bill protections and the prosecution of predatory for-profit institutions.
- Rectify the growing disability claims backlog due to COVID-19 and other factors.
- Commit to scientific evidence-driven decision making when it comes to adding conditions to the list of those with a presumptive link to toxic exposure.
- Establish processes to ensure families receive all their benefits if the veteran’s death certificate only notes COVID-19 as the cause of death.
The challenges are extensive for the coming year, but it is comforting to know the priorities for the new secretary, Congress, and MOAA are in alignment; this has not always been the case. MOAA is optimistic 2021 will provide a unique opportunity to partner and strengthen relationships with the new administration, secretary, and congressional leaders as we work together to improve the health and well-being of veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors.