Editorial | New VA chief must offer plan for changes

The following editorial appeared Tuesday in The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer:

Another report on problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs came out Friday, this time from the president’s deputy chief of staff, Rob Nabors.

Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of the veterans advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, suggested the timing of Nabors’ report was intended to keep attention low and noted that it contained “nothing new,” merely confirming the failures that veterans have dealt with for years.

In fairness, Nabors’ report adds “corrosive” to the growing list of negative adjectives with which the broken VA health system has been described so far this year.

Against this backdrop, we welcome Robert McDonald as President Obama’s choice to run the beleaguered agency. He has his work cut out for him and we hope he’s up to it.

If McDonald is wondering where to start, a good option would be to direct his attention to what’s been happening in southeastern North Carolina. The VA has been on a building boom and doubled its staffing here since 2010. But it hasn’t been enough.

As many local governments have discovered when they plan only so far ahead, you can build a spacious new school or courthouse, only to find yourself overcrowded the second its doors open.

The VA plans two years ahead. It didn’t reckon with six times as many patients since 2010 due to tremendous growth in North Carolina’s veterans population – something that should have been predictable with a glimpse at the map. Bragg plus Lejeune plus Seymour Johnson plus Cherry Point adds up to a massive presence of military personnel, many of whom stay in the area when they leave the service.

It’s a regional VA problem, but mandated shortsightedness in the VA’s budgeting process caused it. That’s just one part of a culture that has to be purged.

McDonald has faced a lifetime of high expectation. A West Point grad, who served with the 82nd Airborne and rose to the rank of captain before retiring from the Army after just five years. His business career led to the helm of Procter & Gamble in 2009. McDonald resigned in 2013, citing the company’s struggles and suggesting it would be better led by someone else. He said the attention focused on his leadership was distracting.

Leading the VA will give McDonald a new challenge. He can draw on lessons learned from past battles. But the stakes are high. This time defeat is unacceptable. He should embrace this task only if he brings a strategic vision for victory.