Tester puts VA nominee in the hot seat

Senator grills nominee Peake about vets’ health care issues

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – On behalf of Montana's 102,000 veterans, Senator Jon Tester today raised tough questions for President Bush's nominee to serve as the next Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

Retired Lieutenant General James Peake, M.D., testified today before Tester and other members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.  The Committee may vote to confirm Peake as VA Secretary as early as next week.

"General Peake has a distinguished military record.  He seems to be of good moral character," Tester said during today's hearing.  "The question, though, is whether he can deliver the urgent leadership and implement solutions that will make the VA work better for the men and women who have given so much for our country."

Tester told Peake about his legislation to increase the VA's mileage reimbursement rate for veterans who travel to get health care.  Tester originally hoped to increase the rate from 11-cents to 48.5-cents per mile—the same rate federal employees receive (and the approximate actual cost of travel).  As part of a Republican compromise, Tester's final legislation will increase the rate to 28.5-cents per mile.

Tester asked Peake if disabled vets should get the same rate as federal employees.  Peake replied he hadn't thought about the issue, but said he plans to work with Tester on increasing the rate.

Tester raised several other concerns over veterans' health care, including:

  • Backlog     of VA claims: Tester said more than 200 veterans become disabled every     day—the VA can expect up to 1 million additional claims in the next     decade.  It takes an average of 6 months for the VA to settle a     claim.  And vets' claims are getting more complex as Post-Traumatic     Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury becomes worse.
  • Rural     health care: Tester expressed concerns over the Office of Rural     Health.  The Office is staffed by only two employees, although nearly     6 million veterans live in rural America.
  • Time:     Tester noted that only Peake will only serve for 13 months, but added that     Peake is capable of doing "a lot of good work" during that time.

A former Surgeon General of the U.S. Army, Peake was in charge of all Army medical facilities—including Walter Reed Army Medical Center—between 2002 and 2004.  Since then, Peake has served as Chief Operating Officer of QTC Management, a private health care firm that contracts with the VA.  Peake has vowed to cut his ties to QTC Management if confirmed as VA Secretary.

"I hope that, despite his extensive background in the private sector, he agrees to address many of these issues without relying too much on the privatization of the VA," Tester said.

Tester said he intends to vote to confirm Peake.