San Diego Union-Tribune

March 11, 2001 

New VA boss is no newcomer
  Top priority for Principi is fixing disability 'crisis'


WASHINGTON -- In the neighborhood around the imposing headquarters of the Department of Veterans Affairs, aging former soldiers shuffle along sidewalks or make camp in the urban outdoors.

Ten floors above them in his spacious office, Anthony J. Principi, the secretary of Veterans Affairs, reflects on the disabled and the down-and-out veterans, and tens of millions more.

A month into his new job, Principi worries especially about the 500,000 veterans nationwide waiting for disability payments.

"The tremendous backlog is a national disgrace," the Rancho Santa Fe lawyer and Vietnam veteran said during a recent interview. "People are dying before claims are evaluated. We have to fix these."

As he begins a "top-to-bottom" review of the $44.3 billion department, Principi said the VA is evaluating its vast array of services, ranging from benefits compensation to the health-care system.

Principi's top priority is to fix what he calls the disability "crisis." He hopes to reduce the backlog by "several hundred thousand" in a year, but he admitted his goal might be overly ambitious.

"That is not something that can be done overnight, it is a tough, tough problem."

Now making his third tour of duty with the Veterans Affairs Department, Principi said he is "humbled by the enormous responsibility" of running an agency that serves 24 million veterans -- 3 million in California.

The 56-year-old Cabinet member, who served as deputy secretary under former President Bush in 1992, confronts a department described as at a crossroads.

Besides the disability compensation crisis, Principi must deal with other pressing concerns. Among them is a health-care system that operates hundreds of unneeded buildings congressional investigators say are draining billions of dollars.

California is among the states whose medical facilities will be reviewed by the VA this summer.

"We have to take a look at our real estate, to see how many hospitals are in any given city and region, and what the patient needs are," Principi said.

So far, he has gained virtually unanimous early support from veterans groups and from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

"Principi is an outstanding guy, he knows the problems, and the backlogs," said Lalo Rodriguez, a 66-year-old Korean-American veteran who commands the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 11387 in San Diego. "The elderly veterans, they are needing help, and are getting all kinds of red tape and everything else when it comes time to seek disability."

Weeks before moving to Washington, Principi visited the United Veterans Council, a group representing San Diego's 436,000 veterans, as it met at the Veterans Memorial Center and Museum near Balboa Park.

"He's been here several times, he has a history here with the veterans in San Diego," said Tom Splitgerber, executive director of the museum. "The veterans were just ecstatic when he was named. He has our total support."

Despite the accolades, Principi acknowledged that he has "no honeymoon" and that the VA is known to be averse to change.

"The battleship comes around very slowly," he said, "so I have to turn it around fast."

He'll start by "declaring war" on the disability claims logjam.

His boss is an ally in that endeavor. In his budget message to Congress Feb. 27, President Bush proposed adding $1 billion to Veterans Affairs programs, vowing "to ensure better access to quality care and faster decisions on benefit claims."

Hundreds of thousands of veterans nationwide await processing of their claims. The average wait is about 216 days in San Diego, where more than 10,000 veterans are on waiting lists.

"Anytime you have a backlog of 500,000 claims, you have to say, what is going on here?" Principi said. "I have sent down that clarion call. This, in my view, is a crisis."

Late last month, the department's senior managers began reviewing the disability claims situation, "exploring every possible option we have at our disposal," he said.

Principi recently told congressional officials that if he doesn't begin to resolve the disability claims backlog, he'll regard his tenure as secretary as a failure.

He doesn't intend to let that happen.