VA Head Quits Amid Scrutiny on Vets Care

The Associated Press
Tuesday, July 17, 2007; 10:30 PM

WASHINGTON -- VA Secretary Jim Nicholson abruptly resigned Tuesday after months of the Bush administration struggling to defend charges of shoddy treatment for veterans injured in the Iraq war.

Nicholson, a former Republican National Committee chairman and a Vietnam veteran, was picked by President Bush to head the Veterans Affairs Department in 2005. Planning to return to the private sector, he said his resignation is to take effect no later than Oct. 1.

Nicholson, 69, is the latest in a line of senior officials heading for the exits in the final 1 1/2 years of the Bush administration.

"This coming February, I turn 70 years old, and I feel it is time for me to get back into business, while I still can," Nicholson said. He had no specific jobs lined up.

In an address to VA employees in Washington and around the nation by closed-circuit television, he said he was privileged to have worked with them in serving veterans at such an important time. "VA has come a long way in meeting the growing needs and expectations of our veterans and you deserve the credit," he said.

Bush said in a statement that Nicholson "has served his country and his fellow veterans with distinction."

"For over two and a half years, Jim has worked to improve the federal government's ability to care for our nation's veterans," the president said. "As our troops continue to fight in the global war on terror, Jim has led innovative efforts to ensure that the Department of Veterans Affairs is better prepared to address the challenges facing our newest generation of heroes after they return home."

His resignation comes amid intense political and public scrutiny of the Pentagon and VA following reports of shoddy outpatient care of injured troops and veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and elsewhere.

It also ends a beleaguered two-year tenure in which Nicholson repeatedly fought off calls for his resignation over the VA's unexpected $1.3 billion shortfall in 2005 that put health care at risk; last summer's theft of 26.5 million veterans' personal data in what was the government's largest security breach; and, more recently, the award of $3.8 million in bonuses to senior officials who were responsible for the agency's budget problems.

Walter Reed is a Pentagon-run facility. But charges of poor treatment relating to poor coordination quickly extended to the VA's vast network of 1,400 hospitals and clinics, which serve 5.8 million veterans. The VA also has a severe backlog of disability payments to injured veterans, with overwhelming delays of 177 days that Nicholson has called unacceptable.

"Secretary Nicholson's resignation should be welcome news for all veterans," said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "The VA under Secretary Nicholson has been woefully unprepared for the influx of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, consistently underestimating the number of new veterans who would seek care, and failing to spend the money Congress allotted to treat mental health issues."

His departure comes at a critical time. Nicholson most recently headed a presidential task force charged with making immediate improvements to health care in which he pledged to take "personal responsibility."

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