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VA Secretary Is Ending a Trying Tenure
Difficulties Include Big Data Breach and Criticism of Care for Veterans
Fresh From War

By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 18, 2007; Page A03

R. James Nicholson, the secretary of veterans affairs, resigned yesterday and said he would leave his post by Oct. 1, ending a tenure marked by the largest data breach in the federal government's history and sharp criticism of the care given to injured veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

In an interview, Nicholson said he first considered leaving his position at the government's second-largest department in February and recently made the decision final, in part because he will turn 70 next year and wants to get back into the private sector. He does not have a job lined up, he said.

"My yearn to get back into the business world is strong," said Nicholson, adding that he was not asked to step down. "It is a good time -- if there ever is a good time -- to leave the VA. There were no frustrations causing me to think about resigning. . . . This job is so big and our mission is so multifaceted that there are always frustrations, so that was not a factor."

Senior managers at the Department of Veterans Affairs and officials of veterans groups said the resignation came as a complete surprise. A few employees who saw the video conference in which Nicholson made his announcement said he became emotional.

The agency has faced considerable criticism for its treatment of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans as they move from the military health-care system to VA's, and for its chronically slow processing of disability claims by injured or sick veterans from all eras. Critics complain about lost paperwork, a shortage of VA caseworkers, a caseload of 400,000 pending disability claims and long waits for initial appointments in the VA health-care system.

The criticism grew louder this year when The Washington Post revealed decrepit conditions and poor outpatient treatment of wounded troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, though that facility is run by the Pentagon, not VA.

"I was surprised at the number of people, even the number of members of Congress, that thought Walter Reed was a VA hospital," Nicholson said. "So it did have an impact on us." President Bush chose Nicholson to lead a Cabinet-level task force that studied how to improve the care of returning veterans.

VA leaders came under fire again two months ago for awarding $3.8 million in bonuses to top executives in fiscal 2006 -- a time when the department was struggling to clear its backlog of disability claims and expand care as the number of newly injured veterans returning from overseas spiked.

Other trials included the theft last summer of a VA laptop computer and external hard drive containing personal information of 26.5 million veterans, and a $1 billion budget shortfall in 2005 that prompted Nicholson to go to Capitol Hill to ask for more money.

With a $77 billion budget and 235,000 employees, VA is surpassed in size only by the Defense Department. It operates more than 1,400 clinics and hospitals and treats 5.5 million veterans annually. It also handles a wide range of other benefits, including loans, financial assistance and burial benefits for about 25 million veterans. Nicholson, a decorated Army veteran who served in Vietnam, has held the top job since February 2005. He had previously served as U.S. ambassador to the Vatican and chairman of the Republican National Committee.

"Secretary Nicholson's resignation should be welcome news for all veterans," Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said in a statement, adding that VA "has been woefully unprepared for the influx of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans."

VA's health system is generally recognized to have undergone dramatic improvements since the mid-1990s, opening hundreds of outpatient clinics, shifting its focus to primary care and embracing electronic medical records.

Earlier this week, Nicholson said VA would add mental-health services at more than 100 medical centers, part of an effort to identify and treat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan for post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

"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," President Bush said in a statement.

Sen. Larry E. Craig (Idaho), the top Republican on the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, said Nicholson "fought hard to improve care for those dealing with traumatic brain injuries and PTSD."

Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said the timing of Nicholson's departure was terrible.

"It's a really bad time for change," Filner said. "You've got a system that is almost strained to the breaking point."

Filner said he likes Nicholson personally but considers him "a victim of an administration that had misplaced priorities."

"It didn't give him the resources he needed," Filner said. "Like all aspects of the war, they didn't plan for the incredible impact of brain injuries and psychological wounds."

Staff writers Dana Priest and Anne Hull contributed to this report.