Nominee vows improvements for returning vets
WASHINGTON, D.C. ” Veterans Affairs Secretary nominee James Peake pledged Wednesday to bring accountability to the embattled VA, saying he will reduce delays in disability pay and improve mental health care for thousands of injured veterans.
I heard, clearly, the dissatisfaction with veterans waiting excessive periods of time to have their claims adjudicated, of the importance in reducing the backlog of claims,” Peake said in remarks prepared for his confirmation hearing.
He said he wants to make “the system less complex, more understandable, and better supported with the tools of information technology. A veteran should not need a lawyer to figure out what benefit is due ” or to get that benefit.”
Peake, a retired Army lieutenant general, faced questions from the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee about his independence and how he would set himself apart from former VA Secretary Jim Nicholson, who almost immediately after taking office in 2005 was forced to admit to a $1.3 billion agency shortfall that put veterans’ health care at risk.
“A time of war puts tremendous strain on VA,” said Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, the committee chairman. “If confirmed, you will appear before this committee early next year in connection with VA’s 2009 budget. It will be vital that you be prepared at that time to inform us whether the proposed budget is truly sufficient.”
In written responses to the committee, Peake promised to stand up to the White House when necessary, saying he will fight for the appropriate money to make sure injured veterans get the care they need.
Seeking to avoid the crossfire between President Bush and Congress over budget spending, Peake told the Senate panel that he will be an independent advocate for veterans. He also pledged to keep an “open mind” about setting a guaranteed level of funding for the VA each year ” something the VA has generally opposed ” to ensure the embattled agency can provide high-quality health care without shortfall risks to millions of veterans.
“I believe I am in the administration with the responsibility to not only advocate for veterans, but to ensure that our veterans receive the best of care; that they have their benefits provided in a timely fashion,” said Peake, a former Army surgeon general who has spent 40 years in military medicine.
“I recognize that this means appropriately forecasting the needs and advocating for the funds to meet those needs while making sure that the funds provided are well used,” he said.
Peake, 63, isn’t facing significant resistance for the VA post. He was being introduced Wednesday at the hearing by Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan. Dole was co-chair of a presidential commission overseeing veterans’ care.
Peake’s nomination comes as the administration and Congress struggle to resolve some of the worst problems afflicting wounded warriors, such as boosting care for post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury and working to pay disability checks on time.
No major veterans organization is opposing Peake, although some have raised serious questions about how committed he would be in fixing problems in the waning months of the Bush administration.
Only recently, the VA has taken steps to add mental health counselors and 24-hour suicide prevention services at all facilities, after high-profile incidents of veterans committing suicide. In the past, the VA had failed to use all the money for mental health that was allotted to it.
In a written submission, Senate committee member Barack Obama, D-Ill., said he wanted to know what immediate steps Peake would take to reduce delays in disability pay, which average 180 days to process, and to fix problems in the VA’s budget planning.
“I hope he will provide a clear sense of his plans and priorities for reforming what can only be described as an overstretched and underfunded VA,” said Obama, a 2008 presidential contender. “Although this important work will stretch well beyond this administration, I hope Dr. Peake would agree that we cannot wait any longer to address some of the most pressing challenges in getting our veterans the care and benefits they deserve.”
On the Net:
Department of Veterans Affairs: http://www.va.gov
Senate Veterans Affairs Committee: http://www.senate.gov/veterans/public/