New V.A. Secretary Says Hiring Spree Is Needed To Meet Patient Demand

Richard A. Oppel | The New York Times | September 8, 2014

The new secretary of Veterans Affairs said Monday that the department needed to hire “tens of thousands of new doctors, new nurses, new clinicians” — emphasizing the significance of a shortage of employees who are directly involved in treating patients, a factor many experts said was a main driver in the waiting-list scandal that rocked the agency this year.  Yet the new secretary, Robert A. McDonald, a former chief executive of Procter & Gamble, who was unanimously confirmed by the Senate six weeks ago after the resignation of Eric Shinseki in May, acknowledged that it would be difficult to fill many of those slots.  “I am worried about our ability to recruit and retain talent,” Mr. McDonald said at his first news conference at the department’s office in Washington. “The issue now is, we have to find the people.”

Mr. McDonald broadly outlined other plans to fix the department’s problems, but he did not offer many specifics or go much beyond remedies that had already been outlined by the deputy secretary, Sloan D. Gibson, in the weeks after Mr. Shinseki’s departure.  In addition to hiring more doctors and nurses, Mr. McDonald pledged to flatten the department’s hierarchical structure; to continue to eliminate benchmarks that had created unintended incentives to manipulate waiting-time data; to transform what some officials called a vindictive and retaliatory management culture so that it “embraces constructive dissents and welcomes critical feedback”; and to take steps to make it easier for veterans to receive care. In response to a question, Mr. McDonald even gave a room full of journalists his cellphone number.

All that may prove less difficult than finding the new doctors and nurses the department needs to handle the demand from service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as from aging veterans of Vietnam and previous wars. At the same time, the department must still fill both existing vacancies and new positions created by a $17-billion plan approved by Congress this summer to stabilize the agency...