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Mon., Aug. 4, 2008

Our view: New director of VA center has broad support

Even when they do a good job, government agencies like the Department of Veterans Affairs can expect to hear from angry constituents. The measure of their performance can’t be whether every client is satisfied – an unrealistic standard – but whether officials perform their responsibilities fully, efficiently and open-mindedly enough to recognize and fix shortcomings when they occur.

Both nationally and in Spokane, where the VA operates an important regional medical center, the federal agency has received its share of criticism, much of it associated with the growing stream of returning veterans struggling with physical and emotional consequences of service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not to mention Vietnam.

It hasn’t helped that the Spokane facility – which serves veterans inEastern Washington, North Idaho and parts of Western Montana – went for more than a year without a full-time director. That hiatus came on the heels of a 2006 controversy when an 83-year-old vet arrived at the center after its emergency room had closed and died after being transported to a different hospital.

Restoration of 24-hour emergency care happened a year later under the watch of acting director Sharon Helman, who was also in charge of VA facilities in Walla Walla. Helman says that orders to resume round-the-clock hours came from higher up, but her positive approach to tackling such challenges did not go unnoticed in Spokane.

Early this year, though, Helman returned to Walla Walla and the search for a permanent Spokane director continued.

The double good news for the region’s vets is that the search is now over, and the choice was Helman.

As testimony to her credibility in that role, both Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a conservative Spokane Republican, and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, a liberal Seattle Democrat, have lauded Helman and praised her appointment. Since both federal lawmakers have an interest in veterans and their care, and since both have committee assignments that affect the VA medical center, such bipartisan confidence – in the middle of a controversial war and a presidential election campaign, no less – make for a resounding testimonial.

None of which means that the facility can ever escape all complaints and criticism. But Helman, who contends every complaint is a gift, takes an emphatically hands-on approach to her job – from personally recording the opening message on the medical center’s phone tree to wandering the hospital talking to patients, soliciting feedback, following up on complaints and passing compliments along to the staff who earned them.

That doesn’t make her infallible, but it makes her a promising match for a comprehensive care facility that is of vital importance to veterans throughout the Spokane region.

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