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Longtime Administrator Appointed To Head VA San Diego

Robert M. Smith talks about taking over as the director of the VA San Diego healthcare system, July 22, 2016.
Kris Arciaga
Robert M. Smith talks about taking over as the director of the VA San Diego healthcare system, July 22, 2016.

The VA San Diego healthcare system has a new director. Robert M. Smith is taking over at a time when the VA continues to struggle nationally to hire enough people to meet the rising demand.

A San Diego native, Smith has been working at the VA San Diego since 1993. He was most recently the VA's chief director and chief of staff. Smith had been acting director since the former director, Jeff Gerring, stepped down in December after less than three years on the job.

Smith takes the reins at a time when the VA continues to face scrutiny over its backlog of patients.

“My goal, and frankly the VA’s primary goal, is to assure that veterans have access to healthcare,” Smith said.

The challenges include clearing away a backlog of patients. San Diego is the number one user of private care for PTSD treatment, of any VA in the country. Even with using the Choice program, Smith said hospital system struggles to keep up with demand.

Robert Smith talks with staff after the announcement that he will take over as the new director of the VA San Diego healthcare system, July 22, 2106.
Robert Smith talks with staff after the announcement that he will take over as the new director of the VA San Diego healthcare system, July 22, 2106.

Hiring is also a challenge. Since the beginning of the year, three of the top five management positions in San Diego have been open. Open positions in top management is a problem faced by VA’s around the country. The national scandals have made recruitment tougher, though Smith says VA staff is often loyal.

“People are very committed to the mission of providing really high quality health care to veterans," Smith said. "They stay in the job when the salary structures are not perfect. And there is a level of criticism they feel uncomfortable with.”

According to the VA, San Diego serves more than 83,000 veterans in San Diego and Imperial counties, with more than 3,000 employees and a budget of $668 million in fiscal year 2015.