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VA nominee Peake vows to heal ailing department

The ex-Army surgeon general tells a Senate panel he would fight to boost veterans' care.

December 06, 2007|Tina Marie Macias | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Dr. James B. Peake, President Bush's nominee to head the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs, assured senators during his confirmation hearing Wednesday that he would fight to improve care for military personnel injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.

During the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing, the former Army surgeon general promised to look into senators' complaints about the lack of staffing and facilities for veterans in rural areas, reduce delays in healthcare claims, put mental health issues at the forefront and be truthful about the department's budget needs.

"I understand I'm part of the administration," said Peake, a decorated Vietnam veteran who retired from the Army as a lieutenant general. "But I also have a responsibility to the administration and this committee to lay out the situation openly and honestly and to fight for the resources to do my job, which is to take care of veterans."

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) assured Peake, 63, that if he pledges to do that and asks for more resources, "the entire Congress" will back him up.

The previous secretary, James Nicholson, resigned in October amid criticism of poor outpatient care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which is run by the Defense Department, and at VA facilities.

"I've always said the VA secretary has to be an advocate for our veterans, not just an apologist for any administration," said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

Peake is chief medical director and chief operations officer of QTC Management, a Diamond Bar company that contracts with the VA to perform physical exams of veterans seeking disability assistance. Murray has criticized Peake's nomination because of his ties to QTC. Peake told the senator that if he is confirmed, he will sever all ties with the company and turn over supervision of its contracts with the department to the VA's deputy secretary.

Throughout the hearing, Murray referred to horror stories of veterans with mental illnesses, including 22,000 who had been discharged because of "previous personality disorders" and thus lost access to the VA healthcare system. She said a third of all Iraq veterans have sought treatment for mental health problems and that veterans are twice as likely to commit suicide as other Americans.

Peake said outreach and education concerning mental health issues would be a top priority. "We don't want to be passive and wait for people to come to us sick," he said. "We have to reach out."

Murray said she would reluctantly support the nomination. "This is a critical and serious time in the VA's history," she told Peake. "We expect you to take this job and take it seriously. Where history will judge is a year from now, as to whether you are able to turn around an agency that has not got into the ballgame at a time when our men and women are returning from war."

The Veteran Affairs Committee chairman, Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), said Peake's confirmation would be considered before the end of the year.

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tina.macias@latimes.com

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