CINCINNATI - The only Cincinnatian in President Obama’s cabinet, VA Secretary Bob McDonald is leaving office with no regrets and convinced he made a difference.
“In all my experience transforming organizations, this is the furthest progress in the shortest amount of time that I have ever seen,” McDonald told employees in a farewell memo last week. “That includes operations all over the world.”
In an exclusive interview with WCPO, McDonald said he believes David Shulkin will “keep the transformation going” and protect the VA from those who want to privatize it. Shulkin, the VA’s undersecretary for health, was nominated by President-elect Donald Trump after a selection process in which Trump said “at least 100 people” were interviewed.
McDonald said Trump “did not contact me nor ask me to contact him,” but declined to comment further comment on the selection process – saying he didn’t want to second-guess the president-elect.
“We knew that our term could end with the inauguration,” McDonald said. “So, our whole plan was to keep this going and to create irreversible momentum so that veterans continue to benefit from what we’re doing.”
The Harvard Business School documented the VA’s transformation with a November case study that’s summarized here:
Although the transformation remains ongoing, they have made considerable progress after two and a half years: Pending claims at VA have fallen by more than 90 percent; VA healthcare now performs better than the private sector on 96 percent of outpatient measures, according to RAND; and by the end of the year, all VA hospitals will offer same-day access to care, relative to none in 2014. In a survey conducted last month, 75 percent of veterans reported that VA effectively delivers care and services, up from 65 percent just a year ago.
“Leadership matters,” McDonald said. “Harvard Business School is not going to do a case study on the transformation of the largest department of government unless something pretty exceptional happened.”
The former Procter & Gamble CEO was 13 months into retirement when he left Cincinnati to run the VA, then in disarray following a Phoenix scandal in which veterans died on waiting lists that were altered by administrators to conceal the long delays.
Problems weren’t confined to Phoenix.
As WCPO and the Scripps Washington Bureau documented in a series of reports starting last February 2016, a group of Cincinnati VA whistleblowers sent an unsigned letter to McDonald, outlining their “urgent concerns about quality of care.” The complaints led to a management shakeup in Cincinnati and a series of internal investigations that remain unfinished.
McDonald wouldn’t comment on the latest investigation - a formal board of inquiry that heard from VA whistleblowers last fall - except that it’s close to being finalized. But he did say the Cincinnati VA is in “great shape” under the leadership of Medical Center Director Vivian Hutson.
“She spent her entire Thanksgiving Day in the facility, talking to veterans, talking to employees,” he said. “She is the kind of selfless leader we want. Everybody I’ve talked to says she’s off to a great start. I’m including in that not just VA employees, not just veterans but members of the community as well.”
It’s a community where McDonald hopes to dwell for quite a while.
“Well, my son lives there. He’s going to be married and I’m praying for grandchildren,” he said. “So, I sure hope so. I want those grandchildren to crawl all over my back in our pool.”
The Indian Hill resident is proud of his past civic involvement in Cincinnati, including the development of a financial plan for the renovation of Music Hall and Union Terminal. He also worked on the creation of Cintrifuse, a startup enabler that improved Cincinnati’s access to venture-capital firms and helps startups find mentors and customers at Fortune 500 companies.
The startup scene is where McDonald's son -- Taft attorney Rob McDonald -- made his mark as co-founder of the Brandery and an investor/advisor to several startups.
The VA Secretary isn’t sure what he’ll do next, but admits he was tempted by the chance to be the president of the University of Cincinnati.
“We had some early discussions, but I had a problem,” he said. “I was in this role, which really doesn’t allow me to negotiate or seek further employment. I also … didn’t want to do anything to give the impression that I was distracted from my purpose of trying to improve the lives of the veterans of this country.”
McDonald said UC made “a great decision” by hiring Neville Pinto as its 30th president in December.
“I love the university,” he said. “I wish them the absolute best.”