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Tuesday, Oct 21, 2014
Editorials

Editorial: By looking outside VA, Obama on right leadership path

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Robert McDonald wasn’t on anyone’s radar as President Obama searched for someone to take command of the troubled U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

He hasn’t worked for the VA, hasn’t managed a large government bureaucracy and has contributed over the years to Republican candidates, including Mitt Romney in 2012. He is a former Army captain.

All of those are good reasons to think the president has chosen wisely. By tapping McDonald, Obama has looked outside the VA and beyond partisan politics for someone who brings a fresh perspective with a veteran’s sensibility.

McDonald ran the world’s largest household products maker, Procter & Gamble Co., for several years and served on the boards of other large corporations, such as Xerox and United States Steel.

At Procter & Gamble he oversaw 120,000 employees working in 200 plants around the world. The company served more than 5 billion customers.

Those are private-sector management challenges that rival the vast VA health care system and its 300,000 employees and nearly 9 million enrollees.

Granted, selling soap and managing health care are far different enterprises. But McDonald represents the management change the VA desperately needs. Nominating another military insider would have signaled business as usual.

And that’s unacceptable.

A recent report by Obama’s deputy chief of staff identified “significant and chronic system failures” at the VA and described a “corrosive” management culture marked by an “inability to effectively manage or communicate.”

The VA’s former secretary, Eric Shinseki, resigned in May amid the growing scandal over excessive wait times for patients at VA hospitals and reports that administrators may have manipulated the scheduling records to qualify for bonuses. In congressional testimony last month, VA officials revealed that every one of the 470 top executives at the VA received good evaluations in recent years, with many getting bonuses averaging $9,000.

Those are the same executives presiding over the outrageous conduct exposed in government reports and congressional hearings. That points to systemic management failures that a new VA secretary must confront head-on, along with a host of other challenges.

The VA is struggling to keep up with the influx of veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq and the long-term medical conditions associated with those wars. Its antiquated scheduling systems and procedures need an overhaul. Recent reports show an appalling lack of transparency and accountability among its leadership, along with a need for more doctors, nurses and other medical staff.

Veterans who can’t be seen by a doctor in a timely manner should be allowed to see a private physician at the VA’s expense.

McDonald distinguished himself at West Point and served in the 82nd Airborne Division before leaving the military for a business career. His work at Procter & Gamble involved managing brands before moving up the ranks and taking over as CEO, a job that ended when investors complained about the company’s sluggish performance under his leadership. He’ll likely be asked about the circumstances of his sudden retirement during confirmation hearings before Congress.

Although Obama was slow to respond to the VA mess, he looks to have assigned this critical repair job to a capable leader with the fresh perspective needed to fix the VA’s management systems and burnish its badly damaged brand.

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