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What's the new VA secretary learning? 'We have good people at VA

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert A. McDonald, speaks at the DAV 2014 National Convention on Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, in Las Vegas. McDonald, a former Procter and Gamble CEO who took the top VA post July 30, met with veterans during his Las Vegas visit. (AP Photo/David Becker) AP Photo/David Becker

After two weeks on the job, new Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald has remained silent on whether he is looking to fire any VA employees for their conduct in the health care scandal, and instead continues to offer broad statements of support for those employees.

McDonald spoke Wednesday at the group American Veterans, and said one major thing he's learning as he visits various VA clinics around the country is that the VA is filled with "good people."

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert A. McDonald says he's learning that the VA is filled with good people who want to help veterans. (AP Photo/David Becker)

"Here's what I'm learning," he told AMVETS. "We have good people at VA — many of them veterans. They are passionate about serving veterans, and they are working hard to fix our system so they can provide superior service. So, we're on their team, and they've got our support."

As he has done in other speeches over the last two weeks, McDonald acknowledged the health care scandal that revealed VA officials around the country conspired to delay health care access for thousands of veterans — many of them later worked to cover up the scandal, and retaliated against VA workers who tried to blow the whistle on the scheme.

McDonald said he's getting the "unvarnished truth" about what happened, and repeated his assessment that the VA scandal represents failed leadership at the department. He also repeated his broad promise to discipline those who played a role in the scandal.

"As I said earlier, the vast majority of VA employees are deeply dedicated to the mission and VA's core values," he said. "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."

But in a list of 17 steps the VA has taken to address the scandal, McDonald made no mention of using a new law that allows the VA to quickly fire or demote workers. Instead, he noted only that the VA won't hand out bonuses to senior officials in 2014, and otherwise outlined the steps the VA is taking to spend billions of dollars to create new routes to health care for veterans.

McDonald said the "first lesson" for the VA is to focus on care for veterans. But in another nod to VA employees, he said the second lesson is to help VA employees succeed.

"It's my job to make sure that all the employees at VA have the opportunity to succeed," he said. "All of them."

On Thursday, Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.) indicated she would continue to push McDonald to use his new authority in the law to fire or demote VA employees involved in the scandal.

"In our VA reform bill, Congress gave the new VA Secretary broad authority to swiftly fire senior managers for misconduct or poor performance – and we expect him to use it," she said.

Roby, who has accused senior VA employees of lying to members of Congress about the scandal, added that Congress and the public need to be careful not to ignore problems at the VA now that Congress has passed a law.

"We cannot let people move on to the next story. This story is still happening, and it’s really just begun," she said.

"The reform bill is good, it really is," Roby added. "It gives the VA unprecedented tools to clean house and streamline care. But it won't matter unless they use them."

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