WASHINGTON - Pledging to "do the right thing," Veterans Affairs nominee James Peake said yesterday that he will be an independent advocate for thousands of injured veterans and will fight for the needed funding for their care.
In a 2 1/2-hour confirmation hearing, the retired Army lieutenant general also vowed to work on fixing gaps in care and reducing delays in disability pay.
But Peake hedged on offering specific solutions, deferring to detailed briefings he will receive later if confirmed. He indicated that his greatest mark on the agency in the waning months of the Bush administration might be improved communications with the Defense Department.
"I'm not much of a legacy guy," Peake said.
No major veterans organization is opposing Peake, a former Army surgeon general who has spent 40 years in military medicine. The full Senate was expected to confirm his nomination as early as this month.
Still, members from both parties on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee questioned Peake closely about his independence and how he would set himself apart from former VA Secretary Jim Nicholson, who almost immediately after taking office in 2005 was forced to acknowledge the agency had a $1.3 billion shortfall that put veterans' healthcare at risk.
Nicholson stepped down in October amid charges of shoddy outpatient treatment at the Pentagon-run Walter Reed Army Medical Center as well as at VA facilities.
If confirmed, Peake would appear before the committee again early next year to discuss the VA's annual budget.
"I will work closely with this committee to do the right thing," he said.
Peake, 63, said that as an Army surgeon general, he clashed on occasion with an administration unwilling to provide adequate funding. Stressing that he believes in "working within the system," Peake said he eventually got the money by explaining "what we couldn't do."
"I understand I'm part of the administration," he said. "But I also have a responsibility to the administration and this committee to lay out the situation openly and honestly and to fight for the resources to do my job, which is to take care of veterans."
Peake also said he will closely consider a proposal - generally opposed by the VA - to guarantee a minimum level of annual funding. Veterans groups say that would shield the VA budget process from politics and eliminate future shortfall risks.
Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, pressed him further.
"It's a rough and tumble process with the Office of Management and Budget. How tough can you be?" Specter asked.
"I think I can be pretty tough," Peake responded.
During the hearing, Peake also:
Said he hoped to foster greater VA cooperation with the Pentagon in providing better care for mental health problems such as posttraumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
Cited the sharing of medical records between the VA and Pentagon as a "very high" priority. "I do believe we can make substantial progress" in 2008, he said.
Said delays in disability pay - which average 177 days - could be reduced by simplifying the system, but did not offer specifics.
Expressed a commitment to improving veterans health care in hard-to-reach rural areas.
Senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat who is the administration's most ardent critic on the committee, said she planned to support Peake's nomination but warned: "Where history will judge is a year from now, as to whether you are able to turn around an agency that has not got into the ballgame at a time when our men and women are returning from war."