VA Gets the Picture -- No Shortfall Here

By Al Kamen
Monday, June 27, 2005

Turns out that $1 billion shortfall for health care funding for our nation's veterans -- disclosed last week at a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing -- is only one of many important and vexing dilemmas facing top officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Take, for example, this discussion of a major problem during the weekly conference call a few weeks ago among senior officials at the Veterans Health Administration, which is the medical part of the VA.

"As you know," Deputy Undersecretary Laura Miller said on the May 27 call, "many of our facilities, medical centers, CBOCs" -- that's community-based outpatient clinics; there are about 850 of them in the country, many in rural areas and some open only one to two days a month -- "and [other] offices have a picture of Secretary [ Jim ] Nicholson prominently displayed.

"Unfortunately, however," Miller continued, "there are many facilities that currently do not have the picture displayed. I am aware that the mailings of the pictures occurred on April 22, 2005." So that's more than five full weeks.

"Dr. Perlin" -- that's Jonathan B. Perlin , undersecretary for health, who revealed the $1 billion shortfall after being grilled by committee Chairman Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) -- "and I cannot stress the importance of this enough," she said. "We are asking that you give this your highest priority. We will continue to ask for daily updates on the status until we are assured that all of our facilities have a current picture displayed."

In defense of local VA officials, it turns out that Miller was wrong: Not all the photos went out on April 22. And we hear some officials disagreed that the photos should be their "highest priority."

"And here we're trying to figure out where our next patient meal is coming from and what furniture to sell to buy drugs next year," one VA official said.

Agency officials said Friday that 100 percent of the VHA facilities have reported appropriate placement of the Nicholson photos. Well, it is important to be able to recognize the head of the agency, especially after last week's hearing. Nicholson was the author of an April 5 letter to senators saying, "I can assure you that VA does not need [additional funds] to continue to provide timely, quality service. . . . "

If by some chance any CBOCs or hospitals lost or did not get the pictures, we provide one here that you can cut out and use just in case a headquarters inspector shows up to check on compliance with this important initiative. Or you can pull one down from

Bye, Bye to Prince Bandar? Apparently Not

Buzz at Foggy Bottom and in other places last week was that Prince Bandar bin Sultan , the Saudi ambassador to Washington since 1983 and dean of the diplomatic corps, was talking about moving on. Bandar, 56, has enjoyed extraordinary access to the White House under Democrats and Republicans and is very close to the Bush family. This may have something to do with his diplomatic skills, but it doesn't hurt that his family is sitting on a sizable chunk of the world's oil reserves.

Rumor's been around before and he's reportedly offered his resignation a couple of times, but last night, the Saudi Embassy issued a statement saying that Bandar was vacationing and would return at the end of August. Too bad for folks in Aspen, Colo., who were eyeing his 55,000-square-foot pied-a-terre -- 15 bedrooms and 26 bathrooms on a mountainside overlooking the town -- with the notion of buying it.

Top FCC Adviser Goes Private

Robert Pepper , a top adviser to the last six chairmen of the Federal Communications Commission over 19 years and an institution in the world of telecommunications, is heading to the private sector.

Pepper, most recently FCC chief of policy development, is joining Cisco Systems on July 1 as senior managing director, global advanced technology policy. A highly regarded expert in the telecommunications field, Pepper has been a key player in a number of telecommunications arenas, including the fallout from the break-up of AT&T and the implementation of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

When Pepper joined the FCC, it is said, they were still using rotary phones.

Trade Reps on the Move

Résumé alert!

It looks like there will be some exceptionally fine openings at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

For example, USTR's chief European trade negotiator, Catherine A. Novelli , is said to be leaving next month for the D.C. office of the law firm Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw. She'll be joining several other Bush administration folks at the firm.

Other USTR departures in coming months include: Al Johnson , the chief agricultural negotiator, who has announced he's leaving; Peter Allgeier , who is taking a USTR job in Geneva; and Deputy Trade Rep Josette Shiner , who is moving over to the State Department.

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