Veterans Affairs Chief To Lead Health Reform Effort
Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson testified before the House Veterans' Affairs Committee on Wednesday that he would take personal responsibility for implementing recommendations made by a presidential task force designed to improve veterans' health care, the AP/Houston Chronicle reports (Yen, AP/Houston Chronicle, 5/9).
President Bush last month appointed the commission, led by Nicholson, in response to a two-part series in the Washington Post that profiled conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and examined the process by which injured soldiers seek disability compensation. The commission called for a joint electronic case-management system to be operated by the Department of Defense and the VA through which officials would be able to share files and track patients.
The commission also called for the formation of a joint disability claims process in order to speed delivery of benefits and reduce discrepancies in the system and urged expanded brain screening for returning troops (California Healthline, 4/25).
Nicholson in his testimony said, "I take personal responsibility in assuring Congress, veterans and service members that this report will be accompanied by definitive and measured actions." He added, "I can't wave a wand over all these different agencies, but it's taken very seriously, and I'm in charge of follow-up."
Lawmakers during the hearing also asked Nicholson about large bonuses -- up to $33,000 -- given to VA officials despite problems with veterans' care and a $1 billion funding shortfall.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said, "I am hearing from a number of our soldiers who've returned home who can't get their benefits because of a backlog at the VA. When they hear about a senior VA official getting a bonus while they can't even get a benefit to keep them in their home or feed their family, it's pretty disturbing."
Nicholson said, "We recognize our shortcomings." He added that top VA officials who received large bonuses "could be making tremendous money on the outside. But they're staying." Legislation introduced last week would freeze the bonuses (AP/Houston Chronicle, 5/9).