Joe Johnston [National Commander], thank you for that kind introduction. And to all of you here in Las Vegas, thank you for that warm welcome.
This is an important conference at an important moment in VA’s history. And it is an honor and a privilege to give my first address as Secretary to Disabled American Veterans.
I first met Joe Johnston, along with Randy Reese [DAV Director of Human Resources] and Ed Hartman [DAV Inspector General] about four weeks ago at a benefit in Cincinnati, not far from where Judge Robert Marx founded DAV. Joe, Randy, and Ed—perhaps a few others from DAV—were there supporting the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, and me.
Joe, it was a real pleasure to talk with that evening. I’m really glad to see you again here. Congratulations on your tremendous work for Veterans this past year as DAV’s National Commander. With your great leadership—most recently through some difficult and turbulent times—DAV has kept its focus squarely on Veterans and what is best for them, just as it has since 1920.
DAV’s contributions to VA reform discussions on Capitol Hill and across the Nation have been of great help—without ever compromising the strong support and confidence you have given to VA for so long. Moving forward, that sort of counsel is going to remain invaluable to me, and I look forward to hearing it. Thank you.
Let me also recognize a few other DAV leaders: National Adjutant Marc Burgess [DAV National Adjutant]; Art Wilson, past National Adjutant, 47 years with DAV, and now heading DAV’s National Service Foundation—thank you for that long and continuing example of service; Garry Augustine [Executive Director, Washington, D.C.]; Barry Jesinoski [Executive Director, Cold Spring, Kentucky]; Susan Miller [Auxiliary National Commander]; And Judy Hezlep [Auxiliary National Adjutant].
Good morning to all of you.
Yesterday, I was in Phoenix at the VA Medical Center—my first stop on the road as the new Secretary. Over these next several months, I am going to keep traveling, extensively, to hear directly from our employees, Veterans, and other stakeholders.
Here’s what I learned in Phoenix. . . . There are good people there. They care about serving Veterans, and they are working hard to fix that system so they can provide superior service to Veterans. I’ve learned over the years that it’s the technicians and specialists—those closest to the customer—who provide the most innovative solutions. We are on their team, and they have our support.
Now, VA Phoenix has an unfortunate nickname—“epicenter.” It’s a term associated with disaster. That’s a bad reputation to have, and it’s going to take time and action to change it. But Phoenix isn’t really an epicenter. The problems we discovered in Phoenix were systemic, extending well-beyond that one location. And the Phoenix story is about more than just a crisis in Veteran access.
To be sure, it is a story of failed leadership. But it is also a story about some dedicated people who have had the moral courage to stand up and help us serve Veterans better. So, my thanks to them.
Listen—coming face-to-face with the reality some Veterans have endured isn’t a disaster. It’s opportunity.
Testifying to Congress, our Deputy Secretary, Sloan Gibson, put it like this. He said, “We can turn these challenges into the greatest opportunity for improvement in the history of the Department.” And the respected former president of the Institute of Medicine Dr. Harvey Fineberg took that notion a step further: Dr. Fineberg said that because of this crisis, “VA can accomplish things now it never could have accomplished.”
So that’s what we’re going to do. With the continued support of President Obama, Congress, great employees at VA—and especially with the always strong support of Disabled American Veterans and other Veterans Services Organizations, we’re going to do what we could never have done otherwise.
It is a great opportunity, and it is a rare opportunity. And it’s an opportunity we cannot miss, nor underestimate.
Before my confirmation hearing, I spoke with Garry Augustine and other leaders of Veterans Service Organizations. And I visited many members of Congress. Again and again, people asked me, “Why do you want to be Secretary of Veterans Affairs?”
Here’s what I told them, and I believe this very strongly. To me, there is no higher calling. And this is an opportunity for me to make a difference in the lives of the Veterans who I care so deeply about.
My wife, Diane, and I both come from military families. My father served in the Army Air Corps after World War II. Diane’s father was a tail gunner in a B-25 during World War II—he was shot down over Europe, and he survived harsh treatment as a prisoner of war. Diane’s uncle was a 101st Airborne Division Screaming Eagle in Vietnam. He was exposed to Agent Orange, and he still receives care from VA. And right now my nephew, a pilot in the Air Force, is serving and flying missions in the Middle East.
So, Veterans are very special people to me.
I graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1975 with our Deputy Secretary, Sloan Gibson, a great leader and a good friend of mine for many years. My time at West Point, and then as an Airborne Ranger in the 82nd Airborne Division (“All the Way”) instilled in me a lifelong sense of duty to country and strong values. The words of that West Point Cadet Prayer still guide me, four decades later. It encourages us “to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong.”
I’m proud of my 33-years’ experience at Procter & Gamble, where I learned the importance of effective management, strong leadership, and of being responsive to the needs of customers. At P&G, we worked hard—and successfully—to improve the lives of the world’s consumers. Many of those lessons will help us change VA to better serve Veterans.
At VA, we are going to judge the success of our individual and collective efforts against a single metric—customer outcomes, Veterans’ outcomes. VA’s own Strategic Plan makes clear, “VA is a customer-service organization. We serve Veterans.” If we fail at serving Veterans, we fail.
We have a lot of work to do.
So those values and leadership experiences are what inform my actions and decisions as Secretary of VA—just as I promised the President. Just as I promised Congress. And just as I am promising all of you this morning.
Lessons from the Army and P&G translate, whether you’re an entry-level employee or head of an organization. Here are a few of them.
So the framework for success is there—an effective strategy, the right values.
But there have been systematic failures. Somewhere along the way, some in the organization lost track of the mission and those core values.
Here’s how those systematic failures manifested themselves. You’re pretty familiar with these.
Now, you can put your arms around the failures by describing them in three ways: Business Problems, Leadership Problems, and Resourcing Problems:
Leadership problems, like our misuse of metrics and failure to hold people accountable for negligence and misconduct; business process problems, like improper scheduling practices and our antiquated scheduling system; and resource problems—our persistent lack of sufficient clinicians, patient-support staff, space, information technology resources, and purchased-care funding to meet current demand for timely, high-quality healthcare.
We know that we cannot tackle all these issues long-term without critical cultural change and accountability. I think there are already seeds of that happening, perhaps in some unprecedented ways. Just consider this for a moment—from President Obama’s nomination of a new Secretary of VA to confirmation and swearing-in, it took only 30 days. And the floor vote in the Senate was 97-0. That’s not a commentary on me. It’s a clear sign of a nation’s extraordinary commitment to Veterans.
Thursday, President Obama signed the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014 into law—another significant showing of strong support for Veterans. That law allocates $15 billion to VA —that’s $5 billion to hire physicians and other medical staff and improve VA’s infrastructure and $10 billion to fund additional purchased care while we build the internal capability to meet current demand. The legislation also authorizes VA to enter into 27 major medical facility leases in 18 states and Puerto Rico to give VA more space for clinicians to treat patients.
And it grants VA new authority to remove or transfer senior executives based on poor performance or misconduct—accountability. As I said earlier, the vast majority of VA employees are deeply dedicated to the mission and VA’s core values. But where that is not the case—where there has been a violation of the trust of the Nation and of Veterans—there will be accountability. This is about restoring the trust of Veterans, of our elected representatives, and all Americans.
I appreciate the work of Chairman Sanders, Chairman Miller, and the many other Members of Congress who came together to pass this legislation.
And I appreciate, as well, the role DAV played in candidly informing Congress of how it saw things as Congress started determining what was needed in legislation to help VA.
As Acting Secretary, Sloan Gibson was doing some great, great work. He’s grabbed hold of these problems like a pit bull, and he’s not letting go. Sloan has us heading in the right direction, and I fully support all the efforts he has in place right now. Here are a few of those first steps.
Right now, Veterans are in need, and we have much work to do to transform VA into the provider of choice for Veterans’ healthcare. But we cannot do it without you.
Let me close by saying how grateful I am to President Obama and Congress for entrusting me with this opportunity to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs. I have a lot to learn about VA, and I want to learn as much about the organization as possible, as quickly as possible.
But I know this already—the fastest, most up-to-date technology and systems are no substitute for looking at ourselves through the eyes of Veterans. When we do that, our direction and requirements will be crystal clear. DAV has been doing that going on 94 years—promoting the Veterans’ perspective.
Thank you for being a friend of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Thank you for your work, your commitment, and your enduring devotion to Veterans.
And thank you for sharing your time with me this morning.