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