VA nominee faces tough job after easy confirmation

Retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki vowed before a Senate panel to transform the Veterans Affairs Department despite facing one of the most challenging jobs in the Obama administration.

President-elect Obama’s choice to lead the VA would have a tough job just in accommodating the growing number of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. But Shinseki must also provide high-quality services at a time when the country’s deficit — a projected $1.2 trillion — is staggering.

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Senators find Shinseki to be a perfect fit for the job. Members of both parties predicted an easy confirmation.

On Wednesday at his confirmation hearing, Shinseki told the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee that he will speedily implement the new GI Bill for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans; seek ways to unclog a long list of disability claims; open up the VA system to many middle-income veterans who did not qualify under the Bush administration; and implement electronic filing for disability benefits.

He said that these near-term fixes are paramount to achieving the long-term goal of modernizing the VA.

Shinseki, a former Army chief of staff, vowed to work on a “credible and adequate 2010 budget request” in the first 90 days of his tenure as VA secretary. That means the actual request would arrive on Capitol Hill in April. The outgoing Bush administration has also prepared its own budget request.

The VA has been struggling with unpredictable funding for years, and advocates have been intensifying their push to get more predictability into the budget process.

Much depends on Congress’s approval of the budget request. Congress now appropriates VA medical care funds on an annual basis. Political squabbling has delayed VA funding in 13 of the past 14 years — something that has severely hampered the department’s ability to plan and manage its healthcare system.

The Disabled American Veterans (DAV) association has been leading a coalition of groups that are pressing lawmakers to approve advance appropriations for medical care as part of the VA’s budget. This would give the VA much more certainty over its funding, as it would know its budget a year in advance.

For example, the budget for 2011 would have to be approved this year.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a member of the Veterans’ Affairs panel, said on Wednesday that advanced appropriations are essential. Panel Chairman Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) and his House counterpart, Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), introduced legislation last year that would ensure predictable medical care funding for veterans.

Perhaps a greater challenge will be in addressing soldiers returning from the battlefields.

“With Iraq and Afghanistan, VA is responding to new challenges: veterans needing state-of-the-art prosthetics or age-appropriate long-term care — for injuries that will last a lifetime,” Akaka said.

The department must also confront less obvious wounds, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries, Akaka added.

More troops are surviving attacks thanks to improved equipment, but many return with traumatic brain injuries, lost limbs, severe burns or blindness that can make them dependent on VA care for life. Many of those injured are in their 20s and will require decades of medical attention.

The panel’s ranking member, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who is throwing his full support behind Shinseki’s nomination, warned that Shinseki has to ensure the quality of the healthcare does not deteriorate with more veterans entering the system.

Shinseki, 66, was injured twice in combat, losing part of a foot while serving in Vietnam when he stepped on a landmine. Shinseki retired from the active Army in 2003. He is also famously known as the general who — pressed by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) — said that it might take several hundred thousand troops to control Iraq after the invasion. His statements proved prophetic, even though the Bush administration at the time quickly decried that estimate.