San Diego Union Tribune

December 10, 2004

Principi touts record funding for veterans

By Finlay Lewis and Otto Kreisher

WASHINGTON – As the federal government's top veterans advocate, Anthony Principi says his most significant achievement over the past four years has been pushing federal funding for his department to record levels.

On the day President Bush introduced his chosen replacement, Principi underscored what he described as an unprecedented improvement in both the quantity and quality of federal health care for veterans under his watch.

At the same time, the 60-year-old San Diegan cautioned that his successor would face the daunting task of completing a thorough revamping of the sprawling Department of Veterans Affairs.

"My biggest disappointment is that we still have much work to do, and we're not there yet," said Principi, whose resignation as veterans affairs secretary was announced by the White House Wednesday.

"We have begun an enormous transformation of the VA, especially in our health care system . . . to get on with the modernization that will define the VA well into the 21st century. If we do not do it, we will fail in our responsibility."

In announcing his nomination of Jim Nicholson to replace Principi, Bush described the departing secretary as an executive "who insists on results and he's gotten results." The president added that Principi's tenure has led to improved VA services for many veterans and their families.

"They're receiving better care and their claims are processed more quickly," Bush said.

One result of Principi's policy choices has been to reduce benefits and services for more affluent veterans without disabilities.

His attempts to shift the department's focus led to charges by Democratic nominee John Kerry during the presidential campaign that the Bush administration was underfunding veterans programs.

Alluding to that claim, Principi said, "You have to set priorities or no one is a priority."

Principi, who was in the San Diego area yesterday, said he volunteered his resignation several weeks ago, resisting the president's entreaties that he remain at his post. However, he said his conversation with Bush left open the possibility of assuming another administration post in the future. His resignation statement, dated Nov. 16, says that he will remain in office until the Senate confirms his successor.

"I just decided I didn't have the energy for four more years," Principi said. "I just decided this was the right time. I gave it my all for four years. For the most part, it's been 24-7, no vacations, and I just needed a break."

Officials of the two largest veterans organizations praised Principi for his years of dedication and service to the nation's 24 million veterans and their families, as well as his efforts to improve the heavily stressed VA health care system.

They also noted that Nicholson would face major challenges in managing the government's second-largest department and securing the funding necessary to provide the benefits required for veterans of past wars and the growing number of service members disabled in Iraq and Afghanistan.

John Summers, executive director of the American Legion's Washington office, said Principi "worked hard to do what was needed, sometimes under the handicap of insufficient funding for health care."

That praise was echoed by John Furgess, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Both men noted Principi's successful efforts to reduce the massive backlog in processing claims for VA benefits and the long waits for treatment at health care facilities.

Despite years of service in Washington earlier in his career and extensive exposure to national politics, Principi made it clear that he has not yet shrugged off Kerry's attacks during the campaign.

"I understand campaigns. I understand politics, but I do believe that things were said that are just blatantly untrue."

The Kerry campaign circulated an assessment by several veterans service organizations arguing that Bush's budget for the current fiscal year falls $2.6 billion short of fully funding "quality veterans' health care."

Principi said that the VA budget since 2001 has grown from $48 billion to $71 billion, which he described as the largest four-year budget increase in history and one that far eclipses spending increases during President Clinton's eight years in the White House.

"So when I hear about someone not being a veterans advocate, I wonder who they're talking about," Principi said.

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