“Frontline employees have a lot to tell us,” Gould said at his confirmation hearing today.
The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee scheduled a Thursday morning vote on his nomination, and that of Tammy Duckworth to be assistant VA secretary for intergovernmental affairs. The full Senate is expected to approve both VA nominations on Thursday.
“We need an improved labor-management partnership at VA,” Gould said. “We need leadership, and there is a difference between leadership and management.”
Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, the committee chairman, said the fact Gould never worked at VA and is not a former official with a veterans’ service organization — a traditional pool for VA executives — could make it harder for him to establish trust and a strong working relationship with career employees. But Akaka liked what Gould had to say about the workforce.
“We need to stop thinking of career workers as a cost and start thinking of them as an investment,” Akaka said. “I want them to contribute their ideas.”
There is a lot to do at VA, and some has to be done quickly.
Gould said short-term initiatives include preparing for the Aug. 1 launch of a new veterans’ educational benefit program, the Post-9/11 GI Bill, that requires a whole new way of calculating and paying benefits. VA also needs to streamline the disability claims system, expand access to health care for Iraq, Afghanistan and other veterans, and harness information technology to modernize benefits and services.
Gould said he has two reasons for being especially dedicated to VA.
One, he received his master’s degree and doctorate with the help of GI Bill education benefits. “I know the GI Bill can change lives,” he said. “It changed mine.”
Second, Gould’s father spent the last 11 years of his life as a patient at a veterans’ hospital. “My family understands the challenge of dealing with an imposing bureaucracy,” he said.
Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, ranking Republican on the veterans committee, said VA faces some big hurdles.
“For starters, our nation is experiencing high unemployment rates, even higher among some of our veterans. This may lead veterans who lose their jobs to look to VA for health care for the first time,” Burr said. “As these and other veterans come to VA, the quality of health care simply cannot be allowed to decline.”
Additionally, Burr said the transition from military to civilian life remains bumpy for many combat-wounded veterans. “More must be done to make sure wounded warriors are not falling through the cracks,” Burr said.