The U.S. secretary of veterans affairs said Friday that he stands by his appointment of a regional healthcare executive who was accused of misleading Congress about how long veterans waited to receive care at a VA facility where she worked in Los Angeles.
Secretary Robert McDonald said he has "absolute confidence" in Skye McDougall to oversee veterans hospitals and clinics in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi and Oklahoma.
McDonald and McDougall spoke to veterans during a public meeting at the G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery VA Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi.
The entire congressional delegation from Mississippi and most of the delegation from Louisiana publicly opposed his appointment of McDougall. They raised concerns about reports that she gave false testimony to Congress about the length of waiting times VA facilities she oversaw in Southern California.
Fred Lucas, a veteran from Raymond, Mississippi, asked McDonald why he would stick with the appointment of McDougall in the face of congressional opposition.
"If a person could mislead Congress, couldn't they mislead us all?" Lucas asked.
McDonald responded: "She did not mislead Congress."
McDonald said McDougall misheard a question she was asked during a congressional hearing. He said she was asked about the waiting time in Southern California for new VA patients to receive health care, but she didn't hear the word "new" and gave numbers based on waiting times for all patients.
McDonald also said he met with members of Congress who expressed concerns about her appointment to the Jackson-based job as head of the South Central Veterans Health Care Network, which oversees 10 veterans hospitals and associated clinics. McDonald notified Congress in December that he was appointing McDougall.
"I explained to the congressional delegation that she did not mislead Congress — she did not lie; there was no intention to lie," McDonald said.
McDougall had been scheduled to start in November as regional director of the VA Southwest Health Care Network that includes Arizona. In October, Arizona Sen. John McCain asked McDonald to reconsider McDougall's appointment because of questions about whether she misled Congress about veterans waiting in California.
Lucas, the Mississippi veteran, asked McDonald on Friday why McDougall did not go to the region that included Arizona. McDonald said that region was eliminated as the VA moved from 21 to 18 regions.
McDonald said he trusts McDougall based on work he has seen her do in Los Angeles and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
"This lady's leadership can help us in the southern part of the United States in VA by bringing innovative technology here," McDonald said.
McDougall on Friday did not address questions about what she told Congress. Instead, she discussed a new telemedicine project the VA will start in Mississippi in coming months. She said veterans will be able to use smartphones or tablets to connect with health care providers to receive some services remotely. She said the technology could be used for dermatology appointments or to check incisions weeks after surgeries or to do checkups for patients with neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS.
"When you don't feel good, it's really not good to be driving very long distances to come in and get your health care," McDougall said.