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VA secretary is off to a slow start in reforming a dysfunctional culture

One of the appealing aspects of the appointment of Robert A. McDonald as Veterans Affairs secretary was his apparent management ability, having led Procter & Gamble, a multinational consumer products giant.

McDonald also has a military background. He is a 1975 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and served in the Army for five years, rising to the rank of captain.

Despite those credentials, McDonald faces a monumental task in revamping the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs. The nation’s largest hospital system continues to struggle amid growing concern that the problems that existed prior to McDonald’s arrival continue to fester.

McDonald has been on the job only nine months, but those months drag on for veterans seeking care. A New York Times story carried in The Buffalo News cites “halting progress in hiring new doctors, replacing incompetent supervisors, upgrading outdated computers and rebuilding trust with veterans.”

Republicans, including decorated war veteran Sen. John McCain of Arizona, are understandably worried. The president recently visited the VA Hospital in Phoenix, where reports surfaced of faked patient waiting lists designed to hide the long delays for appointments. Several veterans died waiting for the medical attention they had earned.

This, along with other whistleblower reports, led to the deserved ouster of Gen. Eric K. Shinseki.

McDonald’s appointment was supposed to usher in a new day marked by good management practices. He promised to act aggressively in holding people accountable. So far, enough doubts surround the change in command to warrant further investigation.

The director of the Phoenix hospital was not fired until December, and then for accepting improper gifts rather than her role in the scandal. Two top administrators have been on paid leave for nearly a year pending efforts at dismissal. The hospital chief of staff who denied to a Senate committee that wait times were manipulated remains in his job.

President Obama issued his own assurance that he would hold the VA chief accountable and, perhaps as a backup, announced the creation of a new advisory committee consisting of representatives of nonprofit organizations, veterans groups and government officials. But will it be enough?

McDonald is still new on the job, but not that new. It was never going to be easy to change the VA’s culture of neglect, but that is the job McDonald signed up for. He promised results and he must begin delivering major improvements soon.