San Diego Union-Tribune

November 7, 2001

Terrorist attacks force VA to refocus on homeland role

Need overshadows budget contraints


WASHINGTON -- The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 have forced the Department of Veterans Affairs to reconsider the notion of eliminating supposedly excess medical facilities, VA Secretary Anthony Principi said yesterday. 

The attacks highlighted the VA's often overlooked duties to provide back-up medical care for the military and the public during a war or national emergency, Principi said.

That requirement could conflict with the agency's need to save money by closing hospitals and clinics, the former San Diego businessman told the National Press Club.

"We need to look at that in light of what happened on Sept. 11th, in light of the number of beds that we may need in the future," he said.

The focus on homeland security might add stress on the VA, whose resources Principi said are being stretched to meet the needs of an aging veterans population.

"All too often, veterans wait too long when they seek VA medical care. All too frequently, they wait too long for an answer when they seek compensation for disabilities," Principi said.

Federal law provides generous compensation for service-connected disabilities and imposes on the VA the responsibility to provide veterans timely and accurate responses to their claims, he said. "Frankly, we do not meet that standard today."

The VA has a backlog of 650,000 claims for benefits and an average wait of nine months for a decision, Principi said. In response, he has hired 1,300 employees to process claims, established a so-called tiger team to focus on the oldest claims and created a task force to evaluate the agency's claims
processing. He expects next week to receive an implementation plan to improve that process.

The agency has attempted to improve service by shifting the focus from in-patient care at hospitals to outpatient service through its clinics. That allowed the VA to treat nearly 1 million more patients while the number of hospital beds dropped by more than 50 percent from 1994 to 2000, he said.

The agency also is studying how to eliminate unneeded or obsolete facilities that the General Accounting Office said are wasting $1 million a day, Principi said.

That move is opposed by the veterans' service organization and is one of the few disagreements it has with Principi's direction at the VA.

"We don't feel there is an availability of excess facilities to start closing," said John Sommers, executive director of the American Legion.

But "overall, as far as the American Legion is concerned, he's been doing a good job," Sommers said.

Principi said the terrorist attacks caused the VA to review its programs, including the study of closing facilities.

A 1982 law gives the VA responsibility for providing medical care for the active military during war and for the military and the public during domestic emergencies.

Principi said VA personnel jumped in quickly to help people injured in the World Trade Center disaster and its experts on post-traumatic stress were available to help people in New York and at the Pentagon.

"I think we performed very well. But we also learned some hard lessons. . . . We were not prepared for the magnitude of this attack," he said.