A divided House of Representatives is keeping several crucial pieces of key legislation for the nation's veterans from advancing, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald said Tuesday, while addressing the massive transformation the nation's primary veterans agency has been undergoing in the past two years since he was brought on board.
"We have put forward 100 different pieces of legislation that we need to continue this transformation," McDonald told MSNBC's "Morning Joe" program. "Some of them are absolutely critical to veterans getting [assistance]."
The most important legislation would cover extensions and providers agreements, said McDonald, noting that the Senate has been working together and has passed the Veterans First Act out of committee unanimously.
That legislation, if passed, will serve to improve the accountability of employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs and to improve healthcare and benefits for veterans while amending Title 38, the U.S. code governing veterans' benefits.
However, the House's divisiveness is "not allowing these things to get through committee and to the floor," said McDonald, insisting the lag is not because of a funding issue.
"I think there's a tremendous unanimity what needs to be done, but it's just the matter of having political will to get it done," he told the program.
McDonald was brought in from the private sector after being with Procter & Gamble for 30 years, including running the company, with President Barack Obama tasking him with making it the VA run like a successful healthcare business.
"We have hired more doctors, put in more space, more nurses, expanded hours," said McDonald.
"We've driven down disability claim backlog by 90 percent, from its peak of 600,000 and we've cut veteran homelessness in about half since 2010. We are making progress but we've got more to do."
McDonald took over a VA that was plagued with scandal following revelations that wait lists had been falsified to conceal chronically long wait times for care.
The VA is in the midst of implementing a new scheduling system, to replace one dating back to 1995, said McDonald, and has hired a former Johnson & Johnson IT director to work on the VA's issues.
"Fourteen of 17 of my top managers are new," said McDonald. "We're in the midst of a transformation."
GOP nominee Donald Trump has spoken of privatizing some of the VA's functions, but McDonald thinks that is a bad idea.
"When I came in, before my Senate confirmation, some senators asked me to look at that," said McDonald. "I'm a business guy and I look at those kinds of things. What I discovered was not only do veterans need the VA and want the VA, but also American public and American medicine needs the VA."
Many key advances have come from the VA, including the nation's first implantable pacemaker, the first liver transplant, the first kidney transplant, and the shingles vaccine, noted the secretary.
"The VA trained 70 percent of doctors in this country," said McDonald. "Without the VA, who would train those doctors? Then clinical care. Over 80 percent of veterans say they prefer getting their care at the VA, and they recommend it to a friend."
September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and McDonald said the VA is making a special effort toward preventing suicide among veterans, after a report this summer revealed an estimated 20 vets commit suicide every day.
"There's no question that any suicide of any veteran is a terrible thing," said McDonald. "The biggest challenge is how we get people connected. We have a new hashtag that we are doing on Twitter.
"We really need the help of the American public. When you notice the signs, get them connected. Call our crisis line. Let's get them connected so we can treat them."
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