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VA Secretary McDonald talks leadership and changes at the VA with SU students

Tom Magnarelli
Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald speaking at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School.";

Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald spoke at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School to students yesterday giving advice on leadership and sharing his experiences coming into the VA. Some of the recent changes implemented at the VA are in response to long wait times for medical care and are meant to improve veterans’ experiences.

McDonald shared his insights on value-based leadership with SU students. That means not being as focused on the rules but instead on one’s principles.

“When I got a call from the White House, ‘will you come serve at the VA?’ I knew immediately and the answer was yes, because my purpose in life is to help other people and improve the lives of others,” McDonald said. "The work we've been doing at the VA is hard work, particularly in this political environment. We're all about veterans, I am not a politician. We are committed to doing the harder right rather the easier wrong, no matter the political outcomes."

Since taking over of the VA two years ago, McDonald said more than 3,000 people have been fired. There has been tremendous pressure to reduce the long wait times veterans have had when trying to see a doctor. A new Veteran’s Choice program gives them the option to see a private doctor.

“Every day about 20 percent of our appointments are in the private sector," McDonald said. "We think that’s about the right amount.”

After fielding questions from students, McDonald said he does not believe in the complete privatization of the VA, but he said the right system does include the private sector in conjunction with their facilities. McDonald said the VA does things that the private sector does not yet know.

"We invented the nicotine patch, we did the first implantable pacemaker, first liver transplant, first electronic medical record, prosthetics, post traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury," McDonald said. "It was the VA that came up with the idea that you take an aspirin a day to ward off heart disease. VA innovation is incredibly important." 

McDonald said veterans’ satisfaction with the VA has gone up to 55 percent since they started taking feedback.

“That’s still not high enough, but we’re building trust over time," McDonald said.

McDonald himself came under fire from elected officials from both political parties back in May for comments he made comparing the VA with Disney theme parks, saying satisfaction is more important than wait times.

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.