VA official seeks to reassure senators

WASHINGTON—A top official from the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is under fire for exaggerating claims about the quality of its health-care system, assured a Senate committee Wednesday that he'll work to correct any inaccuracies or misstatements the VA may have made.

In an appearance before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, Dr. Michael Kussman was pressed about last week's McClatchy Newspapers story reporting persistent exaggerations about the VA's health-care system. Kussman is seeking to be confirmed as the undersecretary for health, overseeing the VA's vast medical system. He's held the position on an acting basis since last summer.

While he received generally friendly comments and questions about the VA's ability to treat soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said she had "serious doubts about the level of frankness we can expect from a VA that has tried to minimize the cost, both in money and in lives, of this war."

"Over the past several years, I have witnessed the VA transform itself into an agency that guards information like a mother bear guarding its young," she said.

Two other prominent senators have expressed concerns about Kussman's nomination, saying he might have been in a position to prevent the quality-of-care scandal at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. It's unclear whether those concerns will scuttle confirmation for Kussman, who's otherwise had a stellar career in the Army and VA health-care systems.

Last week, McClatchy disclosed a series of exaggerations and misstatements by VA officials, including Kussman, about the agency's health-care system. In measures of access, satisfaction and quality of care, top VA officials repeatedly have touted to Congress and others achievements that aren't supported by the evidence.

Murray said she was astonished by the article, which she said "raises a lot of red flags for me."

"We are all pretty cautious about information we receive from the VA, and I'm really looking to find somebody in this position that we can trust, that will bring about a culture of change," she said.

Kussman said he appreciated the McClatchy report and would work to fix any misstatements.

"I think that there were correct issues that (McClatchy) raised of things that need to be articulated better," he said, adding that he was "committed to working with you to correct any deficiencies or inaccuracies."

Murray responded: "I hope that part of your commitment is to give us a picture of reality."

"I don't believe in fantasies, and I guarantee you that I will give you the best information that I know," Kussman said.

Last month, Democratic Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Barack Obama of Illinois expressed strong reservations about Kussman's nomination, saying he'd been on a task force that could have exposed problems at Water Reed long before the media unearthed them.

Murray said "the jury is still out" as to whether she'd work to block Kussman's nomination.

Spokesmen for Obama and Kerry said the senators would continue to review the nomination. Kerry's office said the senator "has very strong concerns about Mr. Kussman and believes the White House can and should do better when it comes to our nation's veterans."


For more information on veterans and military health issues, see McClatchy Newspapers' "Wounded Warriors" blog: