January 8, 2010 in Opinion

Editorial: Talented VA director will be hard to replace


The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

Members of The Spokesman-Review editorial board help to determine The Spokesman-Review's position on issues of interest to the Inland Northwest. Board members are:

The impending departure of Sharon Helman as director of the Spokane Veterans Affairs Medical Center triggers a worrisome memory.

The last time a director stepped down from the Spokane post it took VA officials more than a year to fill the vacancy. During that year, veterans were marching back to this country from two combat theaters in the Middle East, many of them burdened by more than their duffel bags. Traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder contributed to difficulties with readjustment to civilian life. Suicide trends were a nationwide problem, and Spokane was no exception. Yet mounting caseloads resulted in lengthy waiting periods for appointments and treatment for all veterans.

The fighting continues in Iraq and Afghanistan, the need for veterans services continues at home, and this region should not have to go through an extended hiatus again.

Helman departs this month to take over the VA hospital in Hines, Ill., the largest VA facility in that state. The appointment is a well-deserved testament to the admirable job she did during challenging times here, including a stint as acting director while she was also in charge of VA operations in Walla Walla.

She won bipartisan praise and confidence from Republican Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, but when she was put officially in charge in Spokane, it was after two rounds of applications had produced no candidates that the VA judged suitable for Spokane’s needs.

During a stop in Spokane this week, Murray predicted it will be difficult to get a replacement with Helman’s “unparalleled” skills at problem-solving and communication. She’s right.

Nevertheless, the Department of Veterans Affairs owes it to the veterans in Eastern Washington, North Idaho and Western Montana to make Helman’s replacement a priority. Not only does the decision need to be made as promptly as possible without sacrificing quality, it should be done with longevity in mind.

As Murray noted, an effective director needs time to establish working relationships with the community as well as the staff and patients inside the system.

Helman’s year and a half are in contrast to the 14 years her predecessor, Joe Manley, held the job before retiring. Nevertheless, she made superb headway under difficult circumstances, but now a newcomer will have to start over.

The VA needs to move expeditiously to find the right replacement — and for longer than a year and a half.

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