VA nominee Shinseki vows to clean up agency

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 14, 2009 

WASHINGTON — The retired general selected to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs pledged Wednesday to modernize and overhaul the veterans' disability and health-care system, which is straining to serve soldiers back from Iraq and Afghanistan as well as those who served in previous wars.

Before a friendly audience at the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, retired Gen. Eric Shinseki told lawmakers that he'd transform the department by making it more efficient and better able to serve veterans.

His confirmation is expected to proceed without problems. Committee Chairman Daniel Akaka, a Democrat from Hawaii, hopes to have the nomination to the full Senate floor for a vote after President-elect Barack Obama is sworn in Tuesday.

Shinseki, 66, a former Army chief of staff, gained fame earlier this decade when he clashed with the Bush administration over the number of troops needed to prosecute the Iraq war and retired early. He left the Army in 2003, ending 38 years in the service that included two combat tours in Vietnam, where he lost part of his right foot.

If he's confirmed, he'll inherit an agency that's been mired in dysfunction for much of President George W. Bush's tenure.

The VA, the second largest federal department by number of employees, serves 23 million veterans in the U.S. Most of its money goes toward a nationwide network of medical facilities and the monthly disability payments that veterans receive for their war injuries, but it also oversees cemeteries, education benefits and insurance programs.

While the department's budget has grown rapidly in recent years, it's also strained to serve the growing number of new veterans as well as Vietnam veterans, who are using more services as they age.

The agency has been struggling with a backlog of disability claims that's hovered near 400,000 during the past few years. The average time it takes to process a new claim is about 180 days, far higher than the department wants.

"The Veterans Affairs Department is going to have to change a bit of the culture and the way it's been doing business," Shinseki told lawmakers.

Among his priorities are implementing a new veterans education benefits bill, streamlining the disability claims process and bringing more veterans into the health-care system.

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