EDITORIAL: The VA nominee’s unenviable task

Fixing Veterans Affairs Department may be the toughest task in Washington

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Washington is where everyone is trying to move up the ladder to a job with a grander title. Jobs in the president’s Cabinet are among the most highly prized. Uh, all but one. Robert A. McDonald is preparing for Senate confirmation hearings on his appointment as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and it’s a job nobody wants. Someone usually takes it only because a good citizen can’t tell a president “no.”

He was picked to succeed Eric K. Shinseki, who was forced out in the wake of the scandal over scores, maybe hundreds, of veterans dying while waiting for treatment. Mr. McDonald will have his hands full cleaning up the mess. Fortunately, he has long experience with soap and water.

Mr. McDonald, 61, was once CEO of Procter & Gamble, makers of, among a lot of other things, the P&G laundry soap familiar to millions. He should be a welcome addition to an administration woefully lacking actual know-how.

Typical of the outrages he will confront is the story of the Vietnam veteran who tried two years ago to make an appointment at a Veterans Hospital in Bedford, Mass. Last month, he got a letter telling him he could finally see a doctor. This is one appointment that won’t burden the VA. Doug Chase is dead. He died waiting. “It’s surreal,” his widow, Suzanne, told a television interviewer in Boston. “It made me angry, because I just don’t think our veterans should be treated this way.”

This is exactly what Mr. Obama promised would not happen with his “Obama-Biden” plan in 2008 to “make the VA a leader of national health care reform, so that veterans get the best care possible.”

The president-elect knew about the problems because as a senator he was briefed three years earlier about the unacceptably long waits.

Maybe he forgot. He wasn’t the only man with amnesia. The economics columnist Paul Krugman sang lullabies about the VA in The New York Times. “The [VA] is a huge policy success story, which offers important lessons for future health care reform,” he wrote. Alas, the real lesson is that the VA is precisely what health care reform should not look like.

Mr. McDonald, a West Point graduate who spent five years as an Army paratrooper before his 33 years at Procter & Gamble, may be surprised by the differences in running a corporate behemoth like P&G and a lazy, shiftless, unresponsive government bureaucracy. The government bureaucracy grants essentially lifetime tenure to VA employees, regardless of whether they’re dedicated to the mission, hopelessly incompetent, or just don’t care.

“This is not going to be an easy assignment,” said President Obama, with his keen grasp of the obvious, at the White House Rose Garden ceremony introducing his nominee.

“At Procter & Gamble, we always focus on our customer,” Mr. McDonald said. “At the VA, the veteran is our customer, and we all must focus all day, every day on getting them the benefits and care that they so earned.” That sounds good, and we wish him good luck. He’s going to need a lot of it.

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