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Senate Confirms Denis McDonough To Head Veterans Affairs Department

Denis McDonough, who was confirmed on Monday as secretary of Veterans Affairs, said he's been directed by President Biden "to focus on getting our veterans through this pandemic."
Sarah Silbiger
Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Denis McDonough, who was confirmed on Monday as secretary of Veterans Affairs, said he's been directed by President Biden "to focus on getting our veterans through this pandemic."

Updated at 7:11 p.m. ET

The Senate voted 87-7 on Monday to confirm President Biden's pick, Denis McDonough, to serve as Veterans Affairs secretary, making him only the second non-veteran to lead the troubled department.

While McDonough did not serve in the armed forces, the 51-year-old is a veteran public servant. He was President Barack Obama's chief of staff, a position he assumed in February 2013. Before that he served as the deputy national security advisor and as the chief of staff of the national security staff and as the deputy national security advisor for strategic communications.

As head of the VA, McDonough is inheriting the formidable task of overseeing the administration of COVID-19 vaccines to many of the 18 million veterans across the nation.

During his confirmation hearing last month, McDonough told the Senate that he's been directed by Biden "to focus on getting our veterans through this pandemic."

He is also taking over the behemoth agency — the largest integrated health care system in the U.S. — as it faces a long list of problems that have plagued the department for years.

Among its failures, the VA has come under investigationfor excessively long wait times for veterans seeking medical care then falsifying records to cover up the delays. And it's long been criticized for its labyrinthine benefits claims process. Additionally, former VA Secretary David Shulkin was embroiled in a scandalinvolving improper spending of funds, directing subordinates to perform personal duties and improperly accepting gifts.

McDonough told the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee that he would apply "his deep and extensive knowledge of government" to overhauling the department.

"This won't be easy. The Department of Veterans Affairs faces great challenges, challenges made even more daunting by the coronavirus pandemic. Its capabilities have not always risen to the needs of our veterans," he said.

Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer tweeted, "The VA has one of the most sacred missions of any federal agency: To care for those who shall have borne the battle. Denis McDonough's decades of experience make him highly qualified for this job. I'm proud the Senate just confirmed him to serve as Pres. Biden's VA Secretary."

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Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.
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