Outside editorial: New VA secretary will need to be 'hands-on'

Posted: Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Veterans Affairs Secretary James Nicholson is leaving his job, and his successor will face a breathtaking array of problems. The department has a backlog of 400,000 pending disability claims. Revelations of shoddy treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, run by the Defense Department, brought new attention to complaints about treatment at the 1,400 clinics and hospitals run by Veterans Affairs.

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Nicholson is a Vietnam veteran, but veterans groups questioned whether he represented their interests. He was reluctant to call for emergency funds to assist soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, until a $1 billion shortfall in 2005 moved him to plead for more money. He underestimated how many servicemen and servicewomen would return from those conflicts with mental health issues.

Despite all the problems, the department announced in May that top executives in Veterans Affairs would receive $3.8 million in bonuses.

Nicholson appeared to be catching up when he promised on July 17 to add mental health testing for all combat veterans and mental health services at more than 200 medical centers. But two days later, he announced his resignation, throwing uncertainty over his promised changes.

The problems at the VA predate Nicholson. For that matter, they predate the Bush administration.

The next secretary will have the benefit of the clear-eyed work of a presidential commission headed by Bob Dole and Donna Shalala. The commission briefed President Bush last week on its recommendations for overhauling veterans' health care and disability benefits. Bush has a game plan to consider. Now he needs a hands-on leader to carry it out.

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