Hutchin­son picks re­tired Army colonel to lead state’s Vet­er­ans Af­fairs agency

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - HUNTER FIELD

Gov. Asa Hutchin­son on Fri­day ap­pointed a vet­eran with ex­ten­sive health care man­age­ment ex­pe­ri­ence to lead the Arkansas Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs.

Re­tired U. S. Army Col. Nate Todd, the chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer of the fed­eral VA’s cen­tral Arkansas hospi­tals, will re­place in­terim Direc­tor Bill Wus­sick on March 13. Wus­sick took over Feb. 10 af­ter for­mer Direc­tor Matt Snead ten­dered his res­ig­na­tion.

Todd, 59, will take the helm of an agency that weeks ago opened the state’s first nurs­ing home built from the ground up with vet­er­ans in mind. It’s also an agency that em­ploy­ees say has suf­fered from low morale in re­cent months.

Hutchin­son called Todd a “friend and a trusted public ser­vant” in a Fri­day morn­ing news re­lease.

“I am con­fi­dent that his dis­tin­guished mil­i­tary ser­vice, ex­ec­u­tive ex­pe­ri­ence and health­care ex­per­tise make him the per­fect se­lec­tion to lead the depart­ment for­ward,” the gov­er­nor said.

Todd will over­see a depart­ment that op­er­ates two vet­er­ans homes and two ceme­ter­ies and of­fers the

state’s 250,000 vet­er­ans as­sis­tance in nav­i­gat­ing the fed­eral VA’s claims sys­tem through a net­work of vet­er­ans ser­vice of­fi­cers through­out the state.

He thanked Hutchin­son for the op­por­tu­nity Fri­day.

“It is truly an honor to be trusted with the in­cred­i­ble re­spon­si­bil­ity of serv­ing as the direc­tor of the Arkansas Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs,” Todd said in the gov­er­nor’s news re­lease.

The Pine Bluff na­tive spent 33 years on ac­tive duty in the Army and four years in the Army Re­serve. He was the direc­tor of health fi­nan­cial pol­icy for the U.S. Army sur­geon gen­eral and was the chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer of the Wal­ter Reed Army Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

Todd’s ex­pe­ri­ence in health care man­age­ment should be an as­set to the agency, which in past years had been plagued by mis­man­age­ment at its nurs­ing homes in Fayet­teville and Lit­tle Rock. The Lit­tle Rock home closed in 2012 be­cause of poor over­sight and de­te­ri­o­ra­tion that had made the build­ing un­in­hab­it­able.

Mark Diggs, a vet­er­ans ad­vo­cate who helped ex­pose wrong­do­ing within the state VA’s nurs­ing homes di­vi­sion sev­eral years ago, praised Todd’s hire.

“The gov­er­nor and his staff are to be com­mended for find­ing such a qual­i­fied vet­eran with the ex­ten­sive fi­nan­cial, health care and man­age­ment ex­pe­ri­ence to lead ADVA,” he said. “I am com­mit­ted to do what­ever I can to help Col. Todd, his staff and the gov­er­nor to serve and honor our

state’s vet­er­ans.”

Dr. Margie Scott, direc­tor of the fed­eral VA’s cen­tral Arkansas hospi­tals, spoke glow­ingly about Todd’s three years at the Cen­tral Arkansas Vet­er­ans Health­care Sys­tem in a phone in­ter­view Fri­day.

“We are very sad to see him go, but we’re equally ex­cited to have him as a part­ner,” she said.

Todd has also been ac­tive in the Repub­li­can Party in re­cent years, serv­ing as the pres­i­dent of the Repub­li­can Party of Arkansas’ African Amer­i­can Coali­tion, ac­cord­ing to the party’s web­site. He’s also a mem­ber of U.S. Rep. French Hill’s coali­tions of blacks and vet­er­ans, ac­cord­ing to the Lit­tle Rock Repub­li­can’s web­site.

In May, Hutchin­son ap­pointed Todd to serve on the Mo­saic Tem­plars of Amer­ica Cen­ter for African-Amer­i­can Cul­ture and Busi­ness En­ter­prise Ad­vi­sory Board through Oc­to­ber 2019.

Snead will re­main with the state VA to help with the tran­si­tion process un­til his res­ig­na­tion takes ef­fect March 10, said J.R. Davis, Hutchin­son’s spokesman. Todd will re­ceive the same salary as Snead: $99,602.

Snead, in his res­ig­na­tion let­ter, said he wanted to fo­cus on per­sonal goals and take a break. He also cited the agency’s turn­around since his ap­point­ment at the start of 2015.

Snead’s res­ig­na­tion also co­in­cided with con­cerns from within the agency about his re­la­tion­ship with per­son­nel direc­tor Sara Terry.

A Feb. 7 let­ter to the gov­er­nor signed by two vet­er­ans ser­vice of­fi­cers re­quested an in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion in Snead’s re­la­tion­ships with “sub­or­di­nate fe­males.” Both

Snead and Terry ac­knowl­edged hav­ing a re­la­tion­ship since Oc­to­ber, but they have de­nied any wrong­do­ing.

Davis said Hutchin­son has reviewed the let­ter and that “ev­ery­thing has been taken care of.” Davis de­clined to ex­pound fur­ther, say­ing the gov­er­nor doesn’t com­ment on per­son­nel is­sues.

He did say it would be up to the new direc­tor whether any out­stand­ing al­le­ga­tions needed to be in­ves­ti­gated fur­ther.

Em­ploy­ees said morale at the agency has suf­fered in re­cent months over the mat­ter. De­spite that, Todd will take over an agency that in many ways has seen a turn­around un­der Snead af­ter the pre­vi­ous prob­lems at its vet­er­ans nurs­ing homes.

In 2015, the agency re-branded it­self with new mis­sion and vi­sion state­ments. Of­fi­cials at the time said plans in­cluded build­ing re­la­tion­ships be­tween vet­er­ans and Arkansas com­mu­ni­ties and busi­nesses; de­vel­op­ing a lon­grange plan for ag­ing vet­er­ans; and im­prov­ing the ef­fec­tive­ness of county vet­er­ans ser­vice of­fi­cers.

On Fri­day, the agency opened its sev­enth new dis­trict ser­vice of­fice — in Rus­sel­lville — mov­ing one step closer to com­plet­ing one of its strate­gic goals.

The depart­ment plans to open its fi­nal dis­trict of­fice in Hope in the near fu­ture, spokesman Sarah Jones said.

At the dis­trict of­fices, for­mer ser­vice mem­bers can work with vet­er­ans ser­vice of­fi­cers who help them nav­i­gate the U.S. Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs claims sys­tem. The of­fices are lo­cated strate­gi­cally through­out the

state to pre­vent vet­er­ans from hav­ing to travel long dis­tances for as­sis­tance.

In 2015, the state VA and a group of stake­hold­ers set a goal of open­ing five of the eight dis­trict of­fices by 2020, but the agency will have opened all eight new dis­trict of­fices three years early when the Hope of­fice opens later this year. The state also has ser­vice of­fi­cers at the state vet­er­ans nurs­ing home in North Lit­tle Rock and at the Lit­tle Rock VA hos­pi­tal.

The state’s vet­eran ser­vice of­fi­cers helped 1,500 vet­er­ans in Jan­uary, up from an av­er­age of 450 vet­er­ans a month in 2015.

Agency lead­ers cred­ited the uptick to the open­ing of the dis­trict of­fices. The first six of­fices opened from Novem­ber 2015 to April 2016. Since Jan­uary 2016, the num­ber of vet­er­ans as­sisted by the state VA has climbed steadily from 333 in De­cem­ber 2015.

Asked Fri­day even­ing about the agency’s goals, Todd said he would as­sess the strate­gic plan en­acted un­der Snead.

“I’m go­ing to be look­ing at the strate­gic plan and lis­ten­ing to Arkansas vet­er­ans and vet­er­ans ser­vice or­ga­ni­za­tions to see what di­rec­tion we need to go,” he said. “But first and fore­most will al­ways be mak­ing sure that vet­er­ans in Arkansas re­ceive those ben­e­fits and ser­vices that they have earned. That will al­ways be my fo­cus.”

Jones said the state VA will be well-served by the new direc­tor.

“Gov. Hutchin­son has made an ex­cel­lent choice in Col. Todd,” Jones said. “And we’re ex­cited to con­tinue mov­ing the agency for­ward un­der his leadership.”

Todd

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