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Bush nominates new VA head

Retired Army general facing strained bureau

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POSTED: November 14, 2007 5:01 a.m.

WASHINGTON -- President Bush will nominate retired Army general James Peake on Tuesday to direct the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is strained by the influx of wounded troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Peake, 63, is a physician and former lieutenant general who spent 40 years in military medicine and was decorated for his service in Vietnam.

He retired from the Army in 2004 after being lead commander in several medical posts, including four years as the U.S. Army surgeon general.

Bush will make his announcement at 1:05 p.m. EDT, according to administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of the announcement.

The president will be joined in the Roosevelt Room with Peake, now chief medical director and chief operating officer of QTC Management Inc., which provides government-outsourced occupational health, injury and disability examination services.

Veterans Affairs Secretary James Nicholson resigned in July, effective Oct. 1. Gordon Mansfield, the VA's deputy secretary has been serving as acting secretary.

If confirmed by the Senate, Peake would lead the government's second-largest agency with 235,000 employees in the waning months of the Bush administration.

The nomination comes as the administration and Congress struggle to find clear answers to some of the worst problems afflicting wounded warriors, such as adequate mental health treatment and timely payment of disability benefits, after disclosures emerged in February of shoddy outpatient treatment at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said Peake will have to prove he is up to the task of improving the beleaguered veterans care system.

"The burden is on Dr. Peake to prove to veterans around the country that he can be the honest, independent advocate we need to turn the VA around," Murray said. "Given Dr. Peake's past posts running the Army health care system he will have serious and significant questions to answer about failed preparations for our returning wounded warriors."

Among the likely questions: what Peake knew about the problems of poor care at Walter Reed when he was Army surgeon general from 2000-2004.

Last March, the Army forced out Peake's successor as surgeon general, Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, who also headed Walter Reed from 2002 to 2004, following the disclosures of squalid living conditions and bureaucratic delays at the premier hospital. Nicholson himself announced his resignation in July as the Bush administration struggled to defend continuing charges of poor treatment at the Pentagon-run Walter Reed as well as VA facilities.

Peake, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, was awarded the silver star and purple heart for his service in Vietnam as a platoon leader with the 101st Airborne Division. He was wounded twice in battle and received his acceptance letter to Cornell University Medical College while in the hospital recovering from injury.

As surgeon general of the U.S. Army, he commanded 50,000 medical personnel and 187 army medical facilities across the world. He also was commanding general of the U.S. Army Medical Department Center and School.

From 2004 to 2006, Peake was executive vice president and chief operating officer of Project HOPE, a nonprofit international health foundation. While at HOPE, he helped organize civilian volunteers aboard the Navy hospital ship Mercy as it responded to the tsunami in Indonesia and aboard the hospital ship Comfort which responded to Hurricane Katrina.

In his new post, Peake, the son of a medical services officer and Army nurse, would manage the embattled VA, criticized for poor coordination with the Pentagon in providing medical treatment and disability benefits to millions of veterans.

Earlier this year, a presidential commission chaired by former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., and Donna Shalala, former Health and Human Services Secretary during the Clinton administration, proposed sweeping change that could add to the VA's backlogged system by shifting most of the responsibility in awarding disability benefits from the Pentagon to the VA.

The VA's backlog is between 400,000 and 600,000 claims, with delays of 177 days. Nicholson in May pledged to cut that time to 145 days, but he has made little headway with thousands of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan returning home.

Earlier this month, Bush pushed Congress to help modernize the government's veterans system. The president said his administration had implemented most recommendations made in July by the bipartisan Commission on Care for America's Returning Wounded Warriors, and now it was Congress' turn to finish the job. Bush sent legislation to Capitol Hill for implementing those recommendations that require legislative action.

Joe Davis, a spokesman for Veterans of Foreign Wars, said Peake appeared to be a strong nominee who will nevertheless face many difficult challenges at the VA.

"He will inherit a department that continues to face significant challenges, ranging from the influx of a new generation of disabled veterans and an uncontrollable claims backlog, to not having an on-time budget for eight consecutive years," Davis said. "He will walk into tremendous challenges on day one.

Associated Press Writer Hope Yen contributed to this report.

 

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