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Fábregas: UPMC ace Romoff could replace Shinseki at VA

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Saturday, June 7, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Allow me to suggest a suitable — though highly unlikely — replacement for ousted Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. It's someone right here in our backyard.

Shinseki resigned last week as a result of one of the biggest scandals in VA history. His six years at the VA culminated with unthinkable stories about secret waiting lists and interminable delays facing our nation's veterans. Some have alleged that up to 40 veterans may have died as a result of negligence at the Phoenix VA.

Also under Shinseki's watch was the infuriating Legionnaires' disease outbreak at the VA Pittsburgh that left at least six veterans dead and 21 others sickened.

As much as some praised him for his leadership and service, someone had to pay the price. Shinseki had to go.

His replacement will reign over a mammoth organization of more than 800 outpatient clinics, 300 vet centers and 150 hospitals. It's a system filled with aging World War II veterans and those seeking care after conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention Korea and Vietnam.

If someone can manage the major overhaul the VA so desperately needs, I put my money on Jeffrey Romoff, UPMC's longtime CEO. I know, I know. He's not the most beloved person on the planet. And he's not a West Point graduate or a four-star general like Shinseki. But the ever astute Romoff has proved he can smartly run a very big and complex organization.

UPMC is much smaller than the VA, with 62,000 employees compared with the VA's 300,000. But it has stretched its tentacles into insurance and international ventures, with projects in Ireland, Italy and China. In fiscal year 2013, UPMC earned $140 million from operations on total revenue of $10.2 billion.

Like former VA chiefs, Romoff is no stranger to controversy. He has experience in testifying before Congress, most recently about the dispute with health insurer Highmark Inc. He's been a tough negotiator, and it has paid off. He said there will be no contract with Highmark, and so far, he has prevailed.

There's a particular way of doing things Romoff can teach the VA. He shepherded a program that guarantees first-time UPMC users a doctor's appointment within three days of calling. Folks at the VA, where some veterans have waited for four months to be seen, should be salivating over such a strategy.

Though Romoff has little experience in managing the demands of veterans groups, he has dealt with unions trying to wriggle their way into UPMC facilities. Unions, like veterans groups, can be quite determined and demanding.

There's little chance Romoff will be considered for the job. No one has called him, and even if they did, he is content with making Highmark's life miserable. Plus, he makes much more money than the VA could ever pay.

As President Obama searches for candidates to lead the VA's bewildering bureaucracy, he ought to consider someone from the private sector. It's not a far-fetched idea. Lawmakers have talked about legislation to let veterans who wait more than 30 days for an appointment seek private care.

There's quite a bit the government can learn from our privately run hospitals. Romoff is just a phone call away.

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