Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson
Haraz N. Ghanbari  /  AP
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson testified Wednesday about recommendations issued last month by the presidential task force he chairs on improving veterans care.
updated 5/10/2007 8:52:46 AM ET 2007-05-10T12:52:46

VA Secretary Jim Nicholson told skeptical House members Wednesday he would work hard to improve veterans' care and said he would take personal responsibility for implementing a presidential task force's recommendations.

Responding to renewed criticism of performance bonuses given to senior officials, Nicholson generally defended the award of hefty bonuses to top Veterans' Affairs officials. Those officials crafted a budget that fell $1 billion short and have been accused of jeopardizing health care, but Nicholson said many Veterans Affairs employees could get higher salaries in private business.

"We recognize our shortcomings," Nicholson told the House Veterans Affairs Committee. "They could be making tremendous money on the outside. But they're staying."

Following reports of the bonuses last week by The Associated Press, Rep. John Hall, D-N.Y., introduced legislation that would freeze future VA bonuses until the backlog of veterans waiting for disability benefits is reduced from more than 400,000 to below 100,000. An expedited vote on that measure by the full House is planned for next week.

Recommendations versus implementation
On Wednesday, Nicholson testified to the House members about recommendations issued last month by the presidential task force he chairs on improving veterans care. Among the proposals are for computerized record-keeping of patient information, better Pentagon and VA collaboration and additional screenings for brain injury.

President Bush ordered the immediate implementation of the recommendations. But lawmakers from both parties have questioned whether they will actually take effect, noting that many of the proposals were made years ago with little success.

Nicholson said he would accept blame if the recommendations don't make significant headway.

"I take personal responsibility in assuring Congress, veterans and service members that this report will be accompanied by definitive and measured actions," Nicholson said. "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."

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Asked by Rep. Harry Mitchell, D-Ariz., if the VA regretted not asking for more money in previous years to address growing demands from veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, Nicholson responded: "I think the VA is adequately staffed."

That drew a harsh response from Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., the committee chairman. He said if Nicholson made that claim to any veterans groups, they would "boo you off the stage."

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"We can't keep saying we have this backlog and we're going to solve it," Filner said, in calling for more money and staff for training, treatment and diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological problems. "We've got to cut through it."

"I think people want bolder action. They don't want this process stuff," Filner said.

Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., the top Republican on the panel, reminded Nicholson that there has been report after report on improving Pentagon-VA collaboration over the last 15 years.

"We must now have implementation," Buyer said.

Nicholson responded that he is seeing a renewed zeal to solve problems, with top officials from the Pentagon and VA meeting earlier this week to discuss ways to break bureaucratic obstacles that have delayed reforms in the past.

Bonuses to be investigated
Regarding money for veterans care, Nicholson said the VA "can probably always make good use of more money."

Democratic lawmakers also renewed their criticism of the VA's payment of $3.8 million in performance bonuses.

The bonuses, which ranged up to $33,000, were given to several top officials who devised a budget that investigators later found to be misleading and put veterans care at risk.

Hawaii Sen. Daniel Akaka, who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and groups including Veterans of Foreign Wars and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, have called on Nicholson to explain why officials involved in a budget foul-up would be rewarded.

A House Veterans Affairs subcommittee plans hearings to investigate the payments in the coming weeks.

"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," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., at a Senate hearing Wednesday on VA backlogs.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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