HEARING OF THE SENATE VETERANS AFFAIRS COMMITTEE
SUBJECT: THE NOMINATION OF RETIRED GENERAL ERIC SHINSEKI TO BE SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS IN THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION
CHAIRED BY: SENATOR DANIEL AKAKA (D-HI)
WITNESS: THE NOMINEE
SEN. AKAKA: The United States Committee on Veterans Affairs hearing will come to order. (Sounds gavel.)
Today's hearing is to consider the nomination of Eric Shinseki to be secretary of Veterans Affairs. I have known General Shinseki and his family for many years. Indeed, I had the honor and privilege of participating in his promotion ceremony I should say way back there when he became a colonel. I look forward to working with him in the latest chapter of his notable career as secretary of Veterans Affairs.
I am delighted to welcome, with much aloha, this distinguished native of Hawaii. His wife, Patty, is here, and Tim, their son-in- law, here.
Following the inauguration next week, President Obama intends to formally nominate those individuals he has selected for Cabinet positions, including General Shinseki. The plan is for most, if not all, of those nominations to go directly to the executive calendar and to be voted on later that day.
Thus it is my hope that General Shinseki will be confirmed by the Senate on January 20th. This is the same process that was followed in connection with the nominees to head VA during the last two changes in administration. My friend Senator Inouye and former Senator Bob Dole will elaborate on General Shinseki's long and distinguished career in the Army, which culminated with his service as the Army's 34th chief of staff.
I will simply note that he graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1965 and that he served two combat tours in Vietnam where he was wounded twice in combat. It was the second injury that could have ended his promising Army career. It did not end because then-Captain Shinseki fought to remain in active duty, and in an inspired decision, the Army agreed.
Throughout his 38 years of service in uniform, he gave his personal best, serving with great pride and dignity. This distinguished and decorated soldier set a new standard for the Army. He transformed the Army into an agile, lean, flexible and lethal fighting force. He set a higher standard for others to follow, while keeping the spirit of aloha. With his pride and dedication to service, he made our Army stronger.
General Shinseki, you will have tremendous challenges facing you. Heading VA is a challenging job, and that is even more true in a time of war. VA must not only meet the needs of those from prior conflicts, but also quickly adapt to address the needs of those newly injured or disabled. Each war brings different challenges and different demands.
With Iraq and Afghanistan, VA is responding to new challenges: veterans needing state-of-the-art prosthetics or age-appropriate long- term care for injuries that will last a lifetime. The department must also confront less obvious invisible wounds, such as PTSD and TBI.
Another area that needs prompt attention is the system for compensating service members and veterans for in-service injury. The frustrating lack of timeliness and the challenge of coordinating DOD and VA's systems are some of the areas that must be addressed quickly. This committee stands ready to work with the administration on this effort. If you are confirmed, this must be one of your highest priorities.
You will also need to focus on the transition for injured service members from active duty to veteran status. A lot of work has been done over the last two years, and I'm hopeful that your long experience in the Army will enable you to continue these efforts. For returning service members, especially those who are seriously injured, there must be a truly seamless transition from DOD to VA.
VA has a strong and dedicated workforce of employees who seek to do what is right. The secretary, with the backing of Congress, must give those employees the leadership, the tools, and especially the resource they need to carry out their jobs. If confirmed, one of your first responsibilities will be to ensure that the 2010 budget is adequate for the coming fiscal year.
When VA is doing its best, few notice that, but things are not perfect within VA. Few human endeavors ever are. If a veteran receives less than what is expected, it can lead to an indictment of the entire VA system. Complaints must be investigated and problems must be fixed. But individual failings should not lead to the indictment of the entire system.
In closing, I'm confident that you have a strong sense of empathy for those served by VA, and a deep commitment to VA's mission. This will serve you well as secretary. I applaud your effort to avoid even the appearance of any conflict of interest in connection with your stock portfolio, your private consulting firm and the boards on which you serve. I trust that all fair-minded individuals will appreciate the steps you have taken to preclude even an appearance of any conflict of interest.
With respect to the rest of your team, this committee has a strong history of bipartisanship, and this is especially true with respect to nominations. As quickly as the administration can send forward other advice and consent positions for VA, I promise that the committee will take action.
I look forward to your testimony, your responses to questions from committee members and to any post-hearing questions. It is vitally important that the position of the secretary of Veterans Affairs be confirmed as soon as possible.
There is a roll-call vote, by the way, which is scheduled to start at 10:30. My hope is that we can continue the hearing, with some senators voting at the start of the roll call and then returning, at which time other senators would leave to vote. If we reach a point where there is no senator available to continue the hearing process, there will be a brief recess. So let me call on our ranking member for his statement.
SENATOR RICHARD BURR (D-NC): Good morning, Mr. Chairman. Aloha.
SEN. AKAKA: Aloha.
SEN. BURR: And to our colleagues, let me say to you and to them how much I look forward, in the 111th Congress, at us working together to improve the lives of our nation's veterans and their families.
I also want to welcome General Shinseki, and I want to congratulate you on your nomination to serve as the secretary of the Veterans Administration. I've personally had the opportunity to sit down with General Shinseki and to review his extensive credentials.
I believe it's clear to me and I think its clear to all members that you have the experience, you have the leadership skills, you have the determination needed to serve a very important and challenging position as secretary of the Veterans Administration, and I certainly welcome you and your family here today.
Let me take a slightly different tack than what the chairman took, and the chairman has to say "if you're confirmed." Let me say this, General, when you're confirmed as the head of the VA, you'd be entrusted with one of the most noble missions of the federal government, and that's caring for the men and women who have served and sacrificed on behalf of our entire nation. That means providing veterans and their families with a broad range of benefits and services that they need to live full and productive lives and making sure that our fallen heroes are honored and memorialized.
But as we'll discuss today, the next secretary will face many serious challenges in carrying out that mission. With our nation continuing to fight conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, great men and women returning home with the physical and psychological wounds of war. For those who leave the military, the goal must be to ensure they are quickly and effectively provided with the benefits and services that they need to return to civilian life as closely as possible as to how they left it.
Unfortunately, too many wounded service members do not experience a seamless transition from active duty to civilian life. General, I look forward to hearing your thoughts on how we can prevent these wounded warriors from falling through the proverbial crack.
Our nation is also facing the highest unemployment rates in nearly 16 years, which may lead veterans who lose their jobs to seek health care from the VA for the very first time. General, as secretary, your charge would be to ensure that as more veterans come into the system, the quality of the health care provided by the VA does not deteriorate. This challenge will be even greater in states like mine of North Carolina, where the number of veterans is growing and where VA capacity is already stressed beyond its capable means.
In addition, the next secretary will be responsible for implementing the new post-9/11 GI Bill. At a minimum, that means making sure veterans and their families receive the correct amount of benefits on time, but it also means providing user-friendly benefits that allow veterans and their families to make the educational choices that best meet their needs.
General, considering all the challenges that lie ahead, I appreciate your willingness to serve our nation in this very important role. I congratulate you again on your nomination, and more importantly I look forward to working with you and on the behalf of our nations veterans and their families. I thank you, General.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
SEN. AKAKA: Thank you very much, Senator Burr.
Before we continue with opening statements of the committee, I'd like to call on two distinguished World War II veterans: my esteemed senior senator, Dan Inouye, and a former colleague Senator Bob Dole for their introduction of General Shinseki. I'll leave it to the two of you to decide on the order of your introductions.
MR. DOLE: (Off mike.)
SEN. BURR: Senator Dole, could you push that button?
MR. DOLE: Oh, yeah.
SEN. AKAKA: Senator Dole.
MR. DOLE: Well, you know, like everybody on this committee, we're all concerned about our veterans, and there are 25 million-plus veterans. So this is no small job that you're undertaking, but you've undertaken about every -- I read all the material I could find. I don't know of anything you haven't done. And you've been twice wounded; you've been on that side. You've been a patient. You understand the needs of patients. You know that were obviously priority number one are deserving veterans, and the great majority are, but there are always some who may be gaming the system.
But I'm honored to be here, not only with you but with my former colleague Senator Inouye. A little trivia: We were wounded a week apart, a mile apart, or a hill apart, in Italy near the close of the war, and we wound up at the same hospital, along with Colonel Hart, who the Hart Building was named after. So here are three of us guys -- we don't know whether were politics or whatever -- found ourselves together in the United States Senate. And they were both wonderful men. And the Hart Building is named after Phil Hart because he was the conscience of the Senate. I never heard him utter a bad word about any other colleague on or off the floor. And he was just a great mentor for me because before I decided to run I came to Washington and had a long visit with Phil Hart.
And Dan and I -- Dan, as an aside, was the best bridge player at Percy Jones General Hospital. (Laughter.) We had nothing else to do so we stayed up all night, and I think he won the championship. I don't know how many entries there were, but he won the championship. (Laughter.)
But I think one thing that ought to be noted here, we have General Shinseki succeeding General Peake, and these guys have been longtime friends, and it would be a seamless transition, and they'll be working together whenever they need each other. I don't know what General Peake has in mind, but I wanted to personally thank him for what he's done, and I particularly want to thank General Shinseki for all he's done, from Vietnam to Bosnia to Afghanistan and Iraq, and the present day, for his willingness, again, to offer his dedication, knowledge and experience to this country.
I know his assignment will take time away from his cherished grandchildren, which is not easy, particularly when General Shinseki has already given so much to his country.
As I said, when Senator Inouye and I had the pleasure of introducing the current secretary, it's good to have a secretary who has been patient and who knows what its like to have been in the system succeeding General Peake. And he's lived with disability since his service in Vietnam, and I can't believe a day does not go by that he is not inconvenienced in some way in his life because of the sacrifices he's already made for his country.
He's a West Point graduate, as was General Peake. That doesn't mean he wont care for those in the Navy -- (laughter) -- and all the other branches, but it's another indication that this is a man of quality. You know, we're lucky to have him, and I think he was -- you were the Army chief of staff when Peake was appointed surgeon general, which I'm certain you had something to do with. But anyway, as I said, they are longtime friends and this would be one of the easiest transitions there is.
And he'll be a strong voice for veterans in the new administration, and he has a profile -- and I don't condemn anybody who's VA secretary in the past -- but when you have a general with a record like his, he's going to have young men and women who are patients or looking for help after they're out of the hospital, knowing that they have confidence in the leader of the VA system. And this means a lot to people. They may never get to meet the general, but they've got to think in their mind, here's a man who's been through it, here's a man who understands it, and I feel better about what's going to happen.
So, you know, I was on a flight I think we were going to Kyrgyzstan; I wasn't certain I knew where it was. But on the way to the flight, a colonel that happened to be from Kansas came over to me and said, I just want to visit a while, and he left and he left me his card. And he said, before you get off the plane, or sometime -- he handed me his card, and on the back was a quote by John Stuart Mill, and this is the quote. "War is an ugly thing," it read, "but it is not the ugliest of things. A decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling, which thinks that nothing is worth war, is much worse. The person who has nothing to which he is wiling to fight for, which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made so and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself," end of quote. And this is something I know our friend General Shinseki understands.
As a free country, America honors its commitments, and the first of those commitments is to support men and women in uniform and their families, who risk everything in most cases.
And we will keep our commitments because we have a committee such as we have, and we have men like the new secretary who will serve and do everything that should be done for our deserving veterans and promised them by a grateful nation.
As the members of this committee know, I joined former HHS Secretary Donna Shalala on a presidential commission, examining the care we provide to our warriors in VA and DOD facilities. And I think that it's fair to say there were nine of us on the committee. Five of us had disabilities, and whatever you think about President Bush, we had several meetings with the committee, with the wounded veterans, and the only thing he ever told us, he told us he was responsible for what happened to each one of these young men and young women, and he said, do whatever it takes. Nobody was asked the cost, nobody was asked the politics, and that's the way it should be, and that's the way it will be with the new secretary.
So I think I was pleased and President Bush was pleased, and many members of Congress were pleased with the recommendations of the Shalala committee, and if not, I know Congress will make changes. We made recommendations where we thought if somebody lost an arm, for example, even though it's indirectly covered, it compensated, there should be a separate compensation if the quality of life has gone from a 10 to a two or three or four, and the same with anybody else with a serious injury. It doesn't have to be physical. It can be TBI or those very bad cases of TPSD (sic). And that's just one example we think Congress should take a hard look at.
When I called General Shinseki to offer any help, I learned it is not considered being secretary of VA a political appointment. And I compliment President-elect Obama for keeping the VA that way. The VA -- if there's any Cabinet I can think of in the government that should not be political, it's the Veterans Administration. Nobody knew when we went to war whether we were Democrats, Republicans, independents. Nobody knows. It doesn't make much difference to the veterans today. They're just looking for some decent, honest person like General Shinseki to provide them the leadership.
The president-elect has made a wise choice, and his appointment is yet another powerful indicator of how we care for and respect our men and women who serve in our country. And I cannot think of a better person to look after our 25 million-plus veterans than this true American hero who has done about everything one can think of for his country. I wish I were still in the Senate so I could vote for his confirmation.
God bless America and General Shinseki and our men and women whose service has kept us free. And I'd ask that my statement be made a part of the record.
SEN. AKAKA: Thank you. Your statement will be included in the record, and thank you very much, Senator Dole.
Now Senator Dan Inouye.
SENATOR DAN INOUYE (D-HI): Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman, Senator Burr and distinguished members of this committee. I'm grateful for this opportunity to appear before you with my very dear friend Bob Dole, Senate majority leader, to present General Shinseki, President-elect Obama's nominee to serve as secretary of the VA.
In Hawaii, our favorite word is "aloha," but second to that is the word "ohana," and that word means family. But a Hawaiian family includes men and women not necessarily of blood kinship, but united by shared concerns and shared beliefs. Yes, that's ohana.
I had the great honor of standing with Senator Oren E. Long, Hawaii's first elected senator, to nominate General Shinseki to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Since that appointment and his acceptance, I have naturally followed his career. In his initial tour of duty in Vietnam, he did well, but he suffered a grievous injury. Most Americans are not aware of this, but he has an amputated foot. Any other man would have justifiably resigned himself to civilian life and retired from the military. It would have been an honorable thing to do. However, General Shinseki pleaded to remain on active duty despite the hardship and physical pain.
Well, this is just one measure of the man who appears before you today, an unflinching devotion to our country and to his duty. His plea was granted. General Shinseki's service encompassed both further study -- he got his Masters from Duke University and later at the United States Army Command and General Staff College and the National War College. These studies, together with an astute grasp of the pragmatic and the quality of his leadership, supported a steadily spiraling course upward through the ranks of the Army. And that's another measure of General Shinseki: the stamina required for sustained excellence.
During my service as a senator, I had the occasion to go to Kosovo, and I was so proud when I met General Shinseki, commanding general of the Kosovo operation. At that time, I was certain that his career would blossom further. In June of 1999, General Shinseki became the chief of staff of the United States Army. His tenure in that hard post included the onset of the Iraq War. As we moved from the emotional frenzy of commencing hostilities, members of Congress began to have questions, most notably whether we had adequate resources to succeed in this war. And obviously, General Shinseki was called upon to testify at hearings, and I think most of us expected the general to give the standard line that any administration would favor. But as we all know, he did not. He told the truth. It wasn't easy and in so doing took a position contrary to his commanding chief.
His honest assessment that more troops would be needed cost him his job, but it is the surest measure of his fitness to serve as a member of the Cabinet. To speak the truth in the face of enormous pressure isn't to take the easy way out. This is the kind of man I wanted to see as the secretary of the Department of Defense Department of Veterans Affairs. And members of the committee, I'm proud to know him, but I'm prouder still to be in his ohana. I thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
SEN. AKAKA: Thank you very much, Senator Inouye, for your help presenting with Senator Dole.
MR. DOLE: Mr. Chairman, could I just add one word?
SEN. AKAKA: Senator Dole.
MR. DOLE: I wanted to agree with the chairman. There is much good about the VA. I mean, you know, there have been a lot of negative stories, but I think we all agree that in most cases they do a good job. And it's just gotten better in the last 10, 15, 20 years, and it's going to get better because of men like this.
SEN. AKAKA: Thank you. Thank you very much for your statements.
And now I will continue with opening statements from the group here. And let me call on Senator Specter, who told me he has to leave. So, your opening statement.
SENATOR ARLEN SPECTER (R-PA): Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I'm pleased to be here to join in the accolades for General Shinseki. I was interested to hear the opening statements of Senator Dole and Senator Inouye. Senator Dole and I have a common heritage coming from the same little town in Kansas 4,998 people; used to have 5,000 until Dole and I left town. (Laughter.) I moved there when I was 12. He was away at college. He was a much older man at that time, but I've pretty much caught up with him. (Laughter.) And hearing Senator Inouye's recitation of General Shinseki's illustrious career really tells it all: West Point grad.
I had the opportunity to meet General Shinseki about a decade ago in Bosnia. I was very much impressed with his record then and impressed to have a chance to sit down and talk to him a few days ago. He has a very, very difficult job. The United States has become a great, powerful nation because of what our fighting men and women have done, from the Revolutionary War on.
I have a special interest in veterans affairs, which led me to select this as a first committee, and I had the honor to chair it for some six years. And my interest arose because of my father, who was a veteran of World War I.
My dad was born in Russia, and he was 18 in 1911 and the czar wanted to send him to Siberia. And he didn't want to go to Siberia. He thought it was cold there. He wanted to go to Kansas. (Laughter.) And it was a close call but he got to Kansas where I was born, and he served in World War I and he was wounded in action.
He carried shrapnel in his legs from the Argonne Forest until the day he died, including the days when he drove a big truck full of junk onto the scale of Doran Dole, who ran the grain elevator in Russell, Kansas, Bob's father, the only scale big enough to weigh the truck.
But the federal government promised the veterans a bonus of $500, a lot of money in those days, still a lot of money, and the government broke the promise, which the government too often does, to the veterans. And there was a march on Washington. My father couldn't participate. He couldn't walk that far and he didn't have the train fare. But on that day, they killed veterans right out here on the Mall, one of the blackest days in American history. And when I heard about that as a toddler -- I think it's hard to know what motivates a person -- that made up my mind to come to Washington to get my father's bonus, figuratively speaking. And I haven't gotten it yet so I'm running for reelection. (Laughter.)
But we have a lot of work to do to provide adequate funding. We tend to forget about the veterans after they've done their job. And I have urged General Shinseki to be a tough advocate for the Office of Management and Budget, and I'm pleased to support you, General. We have the Holder hearing tomorrow, so regrettably I'm not going to be able to stay, but nothing could change my mind anyway.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
SENATOR JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER IV (D-WV): Thank you, Senator Specter. There's lots of dots on that clock and I've got to go vote, and I'll be right back, and the distinguished senator from Montana -- where is Montana?
MR. : West of West Virginia.
SEN. ROCKEFELLER: Just west of West Virginia -- is here to act as chairman, and I --
MR. DOLE: It's cold out there, too.
SEN. ROCKEFELLER: And I just wanted to say that it was very moving to me. It was very moving to me when General Shinseki walked into my office. I was for him before he came in; I was so much for him even more when he left, just to know the man, in the sense I sort of knew the man when he came in. But to have both of you. I remember introducing you once, Senator Dole. It was an incredible privilege and a very emotional experience for me because of all that you've done in your life. Senator Inouye well, he's my boss still so I have to be nice to him, but its not very hard because he has sacrificed. The only think I really resent about him is the fact that in the movie that Ken Burns did on the war -- seven minutes left; I have time to say this -- that you were so incredibly handsome, and I've always held that against you. (Laughter.) But time since then has sort of evened things out, so I feel better. (Laughter.) So I'm going to go vote, and Senator Tester will be chairman. I'll be right back.
SENATOR JON TESTER (D-MT): Thank you, Senator Rockefeller.
SEN. ROCKEFELLER: And I still want to give my statement.
SEN. TESTER: I'm sure you do, without objection, I guess.
SEN. ROCKEFELLER: Yes.
SEN. TESTER: I appreciate the kind comments. That typically isn't always the case, so thank you. Senator Inouye and Senator Dole, thank you for being here. I appreciate you guys being here.
MR. DOLE: Thank you -- (off mike).
SEN. TESTER: Well, thank you. I think it's entirely appropriate as we approach the confirmation of General Shinseki to give a thanks to General Peake for the work that he's done over the last short while that he's been in that office. He's done a nice job and we need to thank him for that because this is an important job.
And I want to welcome General Shinseki. From my perspective, your reputation, as all of us said, is impeccable and your biography absolutely is top flight. I quite honestly am very, very happy that a man of your capability and your stature is willing to tackle this very, very important position as the head of the VA because in Montana we have about 100,000 veterans. That might not sound like a lot but it's over 11 percent of our state population are vets. It's a large group of people, a very deserving group of people that deserve good people working for them, and so you fit that mold in all the areas. So thank you for being here. I believe you will be confirmed. I intend to support you, barring something catastrophic that might come up, but that ain't going to happen.
As I said, when you came to my office, I appreciate your willingness to serve. I look forward to having you come out to the great state of Montana to take a peek around about the challenges that our veterans face every day, and I don't think we're different than any other rural state. It is a challenge for veterans to get to health care in some cases, and to be honest, it's a challenge for me even to navigate through the benefit system in others, which we will all try to work together to get that fixed.
I've had many, many hearings in the state of Montana over the last couple years, and one of the things that a vet told me early on was that he had had some problems with the VA and he said, it's apparent they're trying to outlive me, and they'll get it done. We need to eliminate that kind of frustration as much as possible. These folks are folks that have served this country, in some cases literally put their lives on the line for this country. And I know you're committee to making things right by them and fulfilling the promises that we've made to them, and I look forward to this committee, and particularly myself working with you to make sure that happens.
I am frustrated, to say the least, about the fact that the VA and the DOD don't have a seamless electronic medical record record- sharing. I am in great hopes with your past positions that you can have some influence on the DOD. Rightly or wrongly, I put most of the focus on them in this particular situation. I think the VA has done a great job developing the system. We need to get the DOD to buy into it, and then we need to work together with them. I'm saying the VA when I say "we" need to work together to see that we can make progress on that front because I think it will just help down the line in a number of different areas.
We also have the issues of mental health that is THE signature injury coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan. There are some campaigns, Beyond the Yellow Ribbon campaign, that the Montana National Guard has been developing and utilizing as well as a number of other states. I think it's very successful for Guardsman. You know, do Reservists have the same kind of support? I mean, they have the same deployment schedules, for the most part, the same kinds of issues. Do they have access to those same kinds of programs?
The issue in more rural areas of contracting out, and how we deal with that without destroying the VA because it does provide some of the best health care in the world. But still, with distance and an economy of scale, it may be good to look at that in certain instances.
And then finally, with vocational programs for veterans, how we can work better, how the VA can work better with Labor Department programs to help veterans find meaningful employment while helping turn the economy around of this country, because they are some of the best people on earth.
Senator Murray has rejoined us, and so I would just say in closing and will follow up on some of this stuff with the questions and answer, but in closing, I would just say I'm very happy you're here. I had a very good relationship with General Peake. I told you that in my office. I anticipate we'll have a better relationship.
So thank you very much for being here. And I look forward to your confirmation.
SENATOR PATTY MURRAY (D-WA): Thank you very much, Senator Tester.
General Shinseki, welcome to this committee and thank you for being willing to take on this incredibly important task. You have been nominated to what I believe is one of the most challenging and rewarding positions in our government, and I applaud your willingness to take on this critical position. And I look forward to working closely with you once you are confirmed.
I have always said that we need a VA secretary who will be honest about what our veterans need and have the backbone to stand up and ask for it. Too many of the problems that we have seen at the VA have been brought to light by GAO reports or news organizations or investigations or whistle-blowers. We had a GAO report following the VA's $3 billion budget shortfall back in 2005 that showed that the VA had actually misled Congress, concealed funding problems and based its projections on inaccurate models. A television network uncovered disturbing veterans suicide numbers while an internal e-mail from the VA's own head of Mental Health expressed a desire to cover up the data. McClatchy News found that the VA had repeatedly exaggerated the past successes of its medical system. And the list just goes on.
So General Shinseki, I worked in the Seattle VA during college, and I have seen an incredible dedication and work of staff and doctors and nurses on the ground. And these everyday heroes are working very, very hard to make sure that America's veterans are receiving the kind of care that they deserve. But both veterans and VA staff have been done a disservice by a top-down bureaucracy that has failed to be honest with Congress and has been very resistant to change.
Under Secretary Peake's leadership, progress has been made, and I'm very glad for that. I believe he is leaving the VA as a better agency than he found it. But there is a lot of work ahead of us. Veterans are still waiting too long for benefits. Female veterans are returning to a system that is not prepared to care for their unique needs. Facilities are in desperate need of renovations. And 20 percent of our veterans are returning home with serious mental health needs to a VA that still doesn't have the mechanisms in place to take care of them.
I know you've been out talking to veterans and VSOs and hearing about those challenges and listening to veterans themselves, and that is a key part of this job. America's veterans deserve a truthful advocate who will break through the red tape and make veterans not the bottom line, the priority of VA management.
Having sat next to President-elect Obama when he sat on this committee right next to me, I know his dedication to those who served our nation and to their families, and I very much appreciate his pledge to reverse the current administrations flawed decision to close the doors of the VA to Priority 8 veterans. As you know, I sponsored legislation to reopen access for all those who have served, and I applaud your commitment to achieve that goal responsibly as well.
As you wrote in response to one of this committee's pre-hearing questions, you said, quote, "The overarching challenge that the VA faces is its transformation into a 21st century organization, as called for by the president-elect," unquote. That is no small task, but given your history of tackling complex problems and your record of speaking truth to power, I think you are up for this challenge.
Change is not going to happen overnight. We know that we're going to continue to face challenges at the VA no matter who's in charge, but with transparency, with honesty, with energy, the next VA secretary can begin to tackle these challenges and make a difference for our veterans.
I want you to know I stand ready to work with you to make that happen with as much energy and honesty and transparency as I can as well, and I hope that you view Congress as a partner, not an adversary, in your work to ensure that our veterans get the care and compassion that they have earned.
Thank you very much.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
SEN. AKAKA: Thank you very much, Senator. And now we'll hear from Senator Wicker.
SENATOR ROGER WICKER (R-WI): Well, thank you, Mr. Chairman.
And thank you, General Shinseki, for your service, for your willingness to serve again on behalf of the United States of America. I learned this morning when we were shaking hands and visiting before the hearing convened that you have a distinguished record on the faculty at the United States Military Academy. And I noticed that Representative John Shimkus of Illinois was here to shake hands and enthusiastically greet you and wish you well. He was an English student of yours at the academy, and I wanted that to be reflected on the record that Representative Shimkus came over to offer his support from the other body.
General, you have been before the Senate for a confirmation on five occasions already. You surely must realize that during this process you will eventually be allowed to speak for yourself -- (laughter) -- but we're going to make sure that we talk, too. And so, by way of opening remarks, I wanted to thank you for coming by earlier and speaking to most of us in our offices.
I read with interest your prepared testimony, and I noticed that you outlined three general principles that you would be striving to achieve during your tour of duty in the Department of Veterans Affairs.
One would be that veterans would be the centerpiece. And you mentioned in that regard that the workforce and the VA would be standard-setters in their field. I very much applaud that. Certainly it's reasonable to expect that the specifics and your specific program will come later, but I applaud that as a goal.
Secondly, you mentioned the timeliness and excellence of service by your department.
And the third general principle is to look for ways to things smarter and more effectively and to use the world's best practices. I think that's a very healthy beginning to setting principles, Mr. Chairman, and I applaud our nominee for those today.
I would just like to say during my opening statement that I hope we can employ those principles when it comes to two specific things that I mentioned to you earlier in our private conversation. And one would be with regard to veterans nursing homes, not only those that are run by the VA alone but also in partnership with the various states. We have close to 300 in both categories, and there's a proposal to build two more Veterans Affairs nursing homes during '09.
There is a new concept in the area of nursing homes, and it's called the greenhouse approach. We haven't used this yet in the government. And basically, it strives to put groups of eight or 10 patients, if you will, in a nursing home, together in a pod or in a separate building and ask them to participate in the decision-making as to what sort of activities and what sort of food and what sort of other decisions that they're capable of making, even though they are housed in a nursing home.
I'm a veteran myself. My father is a World War II veteran. My son will soon enter the United States Air Force. I'd like to think that if it ever came to the point where I had to go into a nursing home, I could go into the best, the most modern type of nursing home, one that exercises, as you said, doing things in the smartest way, exercises the best practices.
So I mentioned to you privately, and I will mention to you publicly on the record that I hope in that regard that we can work together with this committee and with the Congress to make sure that when our veterans, when it comes time for them to move into a nursing home, if that should be required, that they can move into the very best possible kind of nursing home care.
I would also hope that we could apply those three principles in the area of electronic medical records. I believe it was the chairman who earlier mentioned the desire of this committee to have a seamless transfer from DOD to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Certainly coming from DOD yourself and now moving into this new area of responsibility, you're uniquely positioned to work in that regard.
But I know that if it were an easy task to have this seamless process of medical records moving from DOD to VA when the time comes for our members to transition, if that were easy, we would have done it already. It's difficult, and we've asked the departments to do this.
I hope that the three principles that you outlined of using best practices, the best practices in the world, and excellence in service and being a standard-setter, that with regard to the electronic medical records and also veterans nursing home care that we can be a standard-setter. And I look forward to being your teammate in this regard.
And I thank you and congratulate you on your nomination and your certain confirmation. Thank you, sir.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
SEN. AKAKA: Thank you very much, Senator Wicker.
Senator Webb, your opening statement.
SENATOR JIM WEBB (D-VA): Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
And General, welcome.
I have to say, first of all, it was really moving to see you sitting there, flanked by Senator Inouye and former Senator Bob Dole. First of all, I was thinking about the kind of services these individuals have given our country, and the other was you and I are both Vietnam guys. And there aren't many opportunities left in our lives to be around people who are going to look at us and call us "young fella." (Laughter.)
And also, Mr. Chairman, if I may, there's an individual out here who I'd like to personally recognize, John Fales, who is over at the press table. He was wounded as a Marine in Vietnam, lost his sight as a result of his wounds. And I've been knowing John and working with him for more than 30 years since I was a counsel on the Veterans Committee.
And General, if you don't know him yet, you're going to. He's rather famous as Sergeant Shaft of The Washington Times.
So John, if you could take a quick bow, appreciate it. Semper fidelis! And thank you for all that you've been doing for veterans over the years.
I think your selection, General Shinseki, is an inspired act of leadership by the incoming president. I look forward to your tenure.
When I look at the VA now, having been involved with it in a lot of different capacities as a recipient and as a committee counsel, and now here in the Senate and having spent five years in the Pentagon, I really believe the greatest challenge for the VA is simple leadership, just getting the right people into positions and understanding how to break the logjams that have created so many problems and getting the benefits that have been voted out by the Congress into the hands of the veterans who deserve them, and I think that your background, particularly having been chief of staff of the Army, is particularly suited to trying to solve those problems.
I have a special interest, as you know, in the GI Bill and how were going to put that program online in a timely way, in a way that is going to have as few administrative difficulties as possible.
But I'd like to make one other point here at the outset of your testimony. You are the fourth consecutive academy graduate, by my count, to be serving in this position, as you will. And on the one hand, that has an upside, obviously, with the type of leadership preparation and the service that goes along with that. And I say this as someone who also went to a service academy. But also it is a challenge that I've watched in some of your predecessors in the sense that I would hope you'll keep your eye on the notion that veterans programs really do have a different character than military programs, and sometimes this just seems to get lost in how they are administered.
I hope you will pay special attention to the way that we are now going through these disability evaluations. In my mind and in my experience, there's a marked difference between assigning a disability for someone, saying that they are not fit for active duty and therefore should leave the military, as opposed to how that disability is measured throughout someone's life as a veteran. And sometimes that gets lost even in the discussions that we've been having over the past couple of years, with the Dole-Shalala commission and these other things.
So the bottom line really on this, my personal request to you as a leader is I hope you will do everything you can to reach out to the veterans groups. They are people who have spent their entire adult lifetimes working on these issues and understanding the different characteristics of them, and also the many, many talented people inside the VA who have done the same thing, have devoted their professional lives to this distinct environment of the aftermath of military service, and to really be sensitive to the different personality between the Department of Defense and veterans benefits.
With that, I wish you well. As I said, I think this is an inspired choice, and my door is always open.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
SEN. AKAKA: Thank you, Senator Webb.
We'll continue with opening statements from members. The next would be Senator Rockefeller followed by Senator Rockefeller, followed by Senator Sanders and Senator Isakson.
SEN. ROCKEFELLER: Well, I sort of gave one, Mr. Chairman, so I'm cheating a little bit. There is no way for me to express how proud I am that you're the president's nominee. And in one sense, it shouldn't have surprised me. I'm not trying to be partisan about this. I'm overwhelmed by the people that have been nominated for Cabinet positions and confirmable positions that come to my office, and their quality is just beyond belief, just one after another, scientists, veterans, administrators-to-be, all of them.
Everybody is going to make mistakes, and what I always liked about you before I even met you was that I had a feeling that you wouldn't know how not to tell the truth, regardless of the consequences. I got that from television and newspapers, and I got it full bore yesterday.
Like Senator Webb was just saying, I think the Veterans Administration, although I think it is the best hospital system in the United States of America, which most people don't give it credit for, it has so many problems still, 220,000 people that you have to lead.
And then this whole question of how do you make veterans -- and Bob Dole was speaking to that -- how do you make veterans feel like their future is good in terms of their rehabilitation, whether it's physical, psychological or inside the body in some other way? And I think it's almost simplistic that sometimes just THE right person at the top becomes the symbol. And it just inspires people on down the line to do twice the job they were doing.
And I told you yesterday when we were talking about a person that Patty Murray will remember very well named Dr. Ken Kaiser (sp). And we have these frequent meetings, panels that go on forever, members come and go. And he wasn't any different from any other director of Health, it seemed to me, as I listened to him that had come before us before.
And then suddenly, four years after he'd left, we found that the entire VA system had been computerized. Everything was databased, unlike DOD where there was a lot of problems and syncing with DOD. And he had done it, hadn't said anything about it. We hadn't had the oversight to know it, which is our fault.
There's so much oversight that we have to do in this committee, which I think needs to be constructive and will cause our members to want to come to hearings and to listen to testimony and to learn more.
But I'm just -- I think you have to start with the guy at the top or the woman at the top. And I can't imagine a better choice than you. I just absolutely cannot imagine a better choice, not just the experience and the wounding and the fighting and the commanding and the decision-making under, quote, "fire," your tough stance, standing up for the truth, but your nature. You inspire confidence in people. You do in me.
I'm still going to ask you some tough questions, but I think you probably have some sense that I'm probably going to vote for you. (Laughter.) But I just want you to understand that it's going to be one of the best votes I've made since the 24 years that I've been on this committee.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
SEN. AKAKA: Thank you, Senator Rockefeller.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
And welcome, General Shinseki. I know you're going to be a great leader, and the VA certainly needs the kind of leadership that you're going to be providing.
You know, it's a funny thing. In this body, we have differences and the American people have differences about the wisdom, for example, of the war in Iraq. But what I have been very happy to see is that there has been a coming together, despite the opinions that one might have about the wisdom of Iraq, with the understanding that we do not blame the men and women who are fighting that war for the decisions that were made here in Washington. And that we have a solemn obligation to make sure that every man and woman who has fought in that war, when they come home, that they get all of the care and the benefits to which they have been promised.
And I think we have made real progress in differentiating our differences with regard to the war with our understanding that we take care of our veterans and we do for them what we promised we would do.
General, we have -- I'm happy to say that under Chairman Akaka's leadership and Bob Filner in the House, we have made some progress in the last couple of years. The good news is we have begun to make some progress. The bad news is that we have a long way to go, in my view.
We have passed, as Senator Webb helped us move forward on this, the most comprehensive and significant step forward in terms of GI education, a real step forward for millions of men and women. We have made progress on VA funding. We have made progress on Priority 8 veterans, on mileage reimbursement, VA counseling for family members. That's the good news.
The bad news is that much remains to be done.
Some of the issues, General, that I hope we can pay attention to in the coming years are advanced appropriations. You can't run a system as large as the VA if you do not know what your budget is going to be. And it really is a disservice to all of our veterans if the VA does not have that knowledge.
I come from a state where we have suffered very heavily from the war in Iraq through our National Guard. And I hope very much that we make sure that the VA properly cares for our citizen-soldiers that have given so much.
Now, let's not forget about the Guard and the Reserve. Clearly many of the men and women who are coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from PTSD and TBI. And this is a little bit outside of the culture of the VA in placing a priority on those needs.
I think we can all agree the VA has done a tremendous job, and it's leading the world in terms of taking care of people who have lost arms, lost legs, hearing, eye problems and so forth. But somehow, when the issue becomes, you know, emotional or mental problems, that's been a little bit outside of the traditional culture. But those wounds are as real as any other wounds many of our soldiers have suffered, and we need the research and the treatment to take care of those people.
One of the areas that I have focused on, and it's of great concern in the state of Vermont, is the issue of Priority 8s. Now, I think we all agree that the most pressing needs of those people coming home wounded today -- we have to take care of our older veterans; that goes without saying. But especially in this economic crisis, there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of veterans who may make $35,000 a year, who are pushed out of the VA.
Now, I think you can't bring them all back in overnight, but I think the goal must be that any person who wore the uniform of this country, regardless of income, should be able to come back into the VA and bring that back. So I look forward to working with you to do that.
I'm sure we have -- my colleagues have discussed with you the claim system. We are somewhere back in the 19th century, I think, in that regard. It is just incredible that in this age of computer technology that people submit claims, they don't hear for months and months, and it goes on and on. That's just grossly unfair. So we want to update and improve our claim system; when people put in a claim, they get a timely response.
One of the real successes of the VA in recent years has been the growth of the CBOCs, the community-based outreach clinics, which in Vermont work very, very well, and the vet centers as well. Vet centers, as you know, are places where there is no bureaucracy, where the vets, in a sense, run those centers. People feel really comfortable walking in. I think that's a great investment, and I hope we can expand that whole area.
Lastly, for many, many years, ever since I first came into Congress and the House, I've been working on Gulf War illness. While we're all dealing with the problems of Iraq and Afghanistan, our older veterans, let's not forget those people who are still suffering from Gulf War illness.
So, General, I'm going to strongly support your nomination. We have a system which is, I believe, the largest provider in America. So what we do impacts the whole health care system in our country. It is profoundly important. And we have a moral obligation to our veterans to make sure we provide them the best care that we possibly can.
So I very much look forward to working with you, and thank you for your years of service to our country.
SEN. AKAKA: Thank you very much, Senator Sanders.
SEN. JOHNNY ISAKSON (R-GA): Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
General Shinseki, I, first of all, want to thank you for your service to the country and commend you on your service to the country. And thank you very much for being willing to assume the responsibilities of the VA. You are eminently qualified.
I've studied your resume. And we are somewhat contemporaries from my period of service and yours. I think we're probably about the same age. And I really appreciate your taking it on. And you've got a life of experiences that will help the VA quite a bit.
And the VA has been making some great progress in some of the areas that were mentioned by Senator Sanders. And I want to comment on two which I sent some earlier prepared questions to you about. One is the Augusta Uptown VA and Fort Gordon's Eisenhower Hospital. General Schoomaker established a seamless transition there for those soldiers coming home, leaving DOD and going into VA care, which has now been, by everybody, including Secretary Peake, who's the current secretary, has talked about what a great success it has been.
In a number of places in the country, a lot of our veterans who come from and are released from DOD kind of fall through the cracks between DOD and VA. It's very important that we see to it that that is a seamless transition.
What the Department of Defense has done with the Warrior Transition Centers has been a tremendous step forward in dealing with the types of difficulties in terms of PTSD and TBI on those that are coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan. Equally, we need a transition from DOD to VA to be as seamless and easy as possible for our veterans.
So I hope -- I've been able to get General Peake down to Augusta to see it firsthand. I know you're going to have a world on your plate for the time being. But I hope sometime during the next year, you can pay a visit to that facility. As we can replicate it around the country, it will make service to our veterans, I think, much, much better than it already is.
And then secondly, I want to echo what Senator Sanders said about the community-based clinics. Those are extremely important. Our state has one of the largest veterans populations of any state in the country, and some of them have to go long distances to get to the VA hospital in Atlanta or the VA hospital in Augusta. And Georgia is the largest state east of the Mississippi River geographically. So those clinics, some of which we've been able to open in the last two years, have made it a lot easier for our veterans to get the health care they deserve in a much more convenient and accessible way.
And I look forward to working with you in any way I can to support you and your efforts to support our veterans who have served our country so well. And I thank you for the time today.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
SEN. AKAKA: Thank you very much, Senator Sanders.
Now for an opening statement, Senator Hutchison.
SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON (R-TX): Well, thank you, Mr. Chairman.
And welcome, General Shinseki.
I want to tell you that I admire and respect you as much as anyone I have ever known in the armed services. And I'm going to support your nomination. You have been a Purple Heart recipient, so you will know what veterans go through. And you were a great Army chief of staff.
I also want to say that your predecessor is one of the finest Veterans secretaries we've ever had. And I know you worked with him because he was your surgeon general. And I know that the transition will be a very good one.
His emphasis on health care has been so positive. He has understood the problems. He has been an action taker. And I just know and will hope that you will stay on that same track. We're opening our fifth Class I trauma center that's already been authorized. And I look forward to bringing that to fruition.
As you know, I'm the ranking member of the Veterans Affairs and Military Construction Committee on Appropriations as well as serving on this committee. And there are a few areas that I know you will address, but I just want to point out, from my experience, that I think are priorities.
First, the claims processing wait is about half a year, and that's just unacceptable. We started working on it, and with the great help from some of our members here, especially Senator Murray and Senator Akaka, we have tried to add the supplemental appropriations to add claims processors. But that is something that will need your urgent attention to assure that people don't have a hiatus when they go from active duty to the veteran status in those adjustments.
Second, electronic medical records, I know that has been mentioned. That's an area where the VA has performed exemplary. And I think it's known that after Hurricane Katrina, not one veteran's record was lost. That is what we need to put in place that will match the Department of Defense. But frankly, it's the Department of Defense that needs to match the VA so that that seamless transition of medical records occurs. And I hope that -- it was started under Secretary Peake, and I hope that you will continue and bring that home.
I was so pleased that you support the research that we know is necessary for the kind of war that we have and the kinds of injuries that we have that are somewhat different from past wars. And particularly, Gulf War research which my colleague Senator Sanders also has mentioned. He has been a champion of that as have I.
And I talked to the researcher at UT Southwestern, who is doing that work, over the Christmas holidays. And he said that now that they have the bigger base to test their initial results, they are finding that there are effects from chemicals. It is showing in the brain scans of people who have had these Gulf War Syndrome symptoms.
So we are going to be able to now take the next step to see how we can add the antidote to the lack of an enzyme in a person's brain that makes them susceptible to those chemicals. And I'm very excited about it and want to make sure that we go forward with this research that is just on the cusp now of showing the results that can be verified so we can protect our warriors who are going to be potentially subject to those.
So I thank you for taking this job, and I look forward to working with you.
SEN. AKAKA: Thank you very much, Senator Hutchison.
Under the rules of the committee, the testimony of all presidential nominees appearing before the committee shall be taken under oath.
General Shinseki, would you now stand for the administration of the oath?
Do you solemnly swear that the testimony you are about to give the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?
GEN. SHINSEKI: I do.
SEN. AKAKA: Thank you.
Let the record note that it was responded in the affirmative.
General Shinseki, will you please begin with your statement?
GEN. SHINSEKI: Well, thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
Chairman Akaka, Senator Burr and distinguished members of this Committee on Veterans Affairs, I am deeply honored by President-elect Obama's nomination for me to serve as the secretary of this department, this Department of Veterans Affairs.
I want you to know that I'm fully committed to doing the best I can in this job of fulfilling the vision that he -- the charge that he passed to me, and that is to transform Veterans Affairs into a 21st century organization.
Over the last several weeks I've had the opportunity to meet with many of you individually, and I want to express my deep appreciation for sharing your concerns with me. And what came very clearly through those conversations were your concerns for and your unwavering support both of our veterans and the good people who go to work every day in the Department of Veterans Affairs.
I listened carefully to your concerns and your advice, and I benefited from your counsel. And I look forward to delivering on the promises that we arrived at.
Mr. Chairman, let me just take a moment and thank you for the courtesy of -- although it's been a little while now, courtesy of introducing my family, my wife, Patti, and my son-in-law Tim Hafey (sp), who's here this morning.
The Shinsekis are usually 13 in strength when we gather as a family. Today we're a little underrepresented. That's because my daughter, Lori, is taking care of her three children in Charlottesville. My son and his wife, Barbara, and their four daughters are in New Jersey.
But the rest of the family is here, and we're very proud of all of them.
I just want you to know, 43 years ago my wife, Patti, married a soldier, and that's about all she understood she was doing. Never having come from a military background, we weren't quite sure where things were going to lead. But here, 43 years later, we're still sitting side by side and looking to serve our country.
She's changed our family addresses 31 times in my 38 years in the military, something on that order. So she has an appreciation for what spouses and families of our military personnel go through. She is as caring and as devoted to soldiers today as she was when I married her. She has stood at my bedside and helped me to learn to walk again and gave me back the confidence to put my professional life back on track when I faced a service-disqualifying injury.
And so I just wanted to take a moment to register for all of us, as the members of this committee know so well, that none of us has the privilege of doing what we do without the love and support of families who sacrifice far more than most understand, who sacrifice so that we have our opportunities to serve.
It was that way for my 38 years as a soldier, and it will be that way again if I'm confirmed to serve both our veterans and the good people at the Veterans Affairs Department as their secretary.
Again, I'm playing a little catch-up here, but I'd like to also express my great honor of having had the rare privilege of being introduced to the committee by two of our nation's premier public servants, Senator Inouye from my home state of Hawaii and former Senator Dole from Kansas, both veterans and both distinguished themselves in battle during World War II and both, as they related, suffered through long and painful recoveries under the nurturing care of the VA and then who returned to public service to help lead our nation and its rise as a global leader in the last half of the 20th century. I am humbled by their presence here this morning, I want you to know that, that they took the time to introduce me and to publicly display their trust and confidence in this nomination.
I'd also like to acknowledge the presence of representatives of many of our veterans service organizations here today. They are essential partners to assure the best possible service and support for those who, in President Lincoln's words, should have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.
And so to all veterans present this morning, those in this room sitting either there on the dais with you or those here in the audience and those who may be watching these proceedings from distant and remote locations in the country, I want to express my thanks for their service, their sacrifice for our country. And I'd be honored to be their secretary and their advocate at the Veterans Affairs Department, if confirmed.
Mr. Chairman and distinguished members of the committee, transformation is always challenging for any organization. And I use the particular term here, "transformation," rather than incremental change. Transformation and looking at all of our fundamental and comprehensive processes that make up any organization of the size and complexity of the Department of Veterans Affairs. So transformation is always challenging for any organization, particularly ones with complex missions and which are steeped in tradition, as is this particular department.
I would suggest that we faced similar challenges about 10 years ago as we began the transformation of the United States Army, a process that continues today. We found that positive leadership, dedication and teamwork on the part of all in the organization allowed what was considered to be challenges when we began to be redefined for all of us as opportunities for innovation and increased productivity. And it's up to leadership to help with that redefinition. With your support, I am confident we will succeed.
If confirmed, I intend to articulate a concise strategy for pursuing a transformed Department of Veterans Affairs, reflecting the vision of President-elect Obama. I have much to learn about the department, and I look forward to gaining the valuable input and insights from its dedicated employees as well as from the veterans they serve and the organizations who serve those veterans.
As Senator Wicker mentioned earlier, there are three fundamental attributes for me that mark the start point of framing a 21st century organization for Veterans Affairs. It will be people-centric. It must be results driven. And by necessity, it must be forward-looking.
And first, about people, veterans will be the centerpiece of our organization, our clients, as we design and implement and sustain programs which serve them. Through their service in uniform, veterans have sacrificed greatly, investing of themselves and the security, the safety and the well being of our nation. They're clients, and I use that term particularly, not just customers of our services. They are clients whom we represent and whose best interests are our sole reason for existence. It is our charge to address their changing needs over time and across the full range of support that our government has committed to providing them.
Equally essential, the department's workforce will be leaders and standard-setters in their fields. There's a long tradition of the VA having exercised, performed that leadership role. And my interest is ensuring that we continue where we lead and regain the leadership where we do not today.
From delivering cutting-edge medical treatment to answering the most basic inquiries, we will grow and retain a skilled, a motivated and client-oriented workforce. Training and development, communications and team-building, continuous learning will be components of that culture.
Second, results. At the end of each day, our true measure of success is the timeliness, the quality and the consistency of services and support we provide to veterans. We will set and meet objectives in each of those performance areas -- timeliness, quality, consistency.
We will all know the standards and perform to them. Our processes will remain accessible, responsive and transparent to ensure that the differing needs of a diverse veteran population are addressed.
Success also includes cost-effectiveness. As stewards of taxpayer dollars, we will ensure that appropriate metrics are included in our quality assurance and our management processes.
Finally, third, forward-looking. To optimize our opportunities for delivering best services with available resources, we must continually challenge ourselves to look for ways to do things smarter and more effectively. We will aggressively leverage the world's best practices, its knowledge base, its emerging technologies, to increase our capabilities in areas such as health care, information management and service delivery.
If confirmed, I will focus on the development of a credible and adequate 2010 budget request as soon as I arrive in the office. And that'll be an immediate priority in the first 90 days. The overriding priority will be to make the Department of Veterans Affairs a 21st century organization, singularly focused on the nation's veterans as its clients.
I thank this committee for its long history of unwavering commitment to those veterans. And, if confirmed, I look forward to working closely with you in that commitment.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and I look forward to your questions.
SEN. AKAKA: Thank you very much, General Shinseki.
I'm tremendously pleased that you are committed to transforming VA. During your tenure as Army chief of staff, you were able to successfully transform the Army to become more agile, to lead a variety of challenges, while dealing with a legacy of technologies that already existed and an institution that was wedded to how things were done in the past. I can see clear parallels to the VA.
My question to you is, what will be your first order of business to begin VA's transformation? And what do you believe will be the biggest challenge you will have to overcome?
GEN. SHINSEKI: Well, thank you, Senator. I think I would describe the biggest challenge being the process by which we begin and sustain transformation of this department into a 21st century organization, focused on the things that I've just mentioned -- people-centric, results-oriented and forward-looking.
I need to fill in the details on exactly what those priorities will be.
But while that becomes the overarching and long-term objective, there are some near-term issues that I know I will have to deal with. I can't get to the long-term issue unless I deal with these near-term ones.
First, implementation of the new GI Bill. There's a 1 August implementation date, and I know that there are assurances that the department is prepared to execute that.
I need to find out for myself, get an assessment, seek, you know, independent advice, if necessary, but be able to assure you that 1 August we will have checks in hands of veterans who are looking forward to spending the next year in an academic environment. So that's one of the near-term issues.
Another near-term issue is this, however it's quantified, the size of the backlog that was mentioned here several times and by Senator Murray as well. I don't understand why six months is what we live with. I need to get inside of this. There is, in my opinion, no reason why a veteran submits a claim and then, you know, takes a number and waits for six months. We need to do something about this.
And some of this has to do with business processes and the applications that are currently in place. And if necessary, we must change them. We will.
Along with that is the transition of currently serving young men and women who are coming back from a combat zone, many of them bearing the scars of battle, some visible, many other invisible. And we need not add them to the backlog. There must be this seamless transition that we have talked about. And as has been suggested, if it were easy, I think it would have been accomplished.
And I think normally, when I've run into situations like this, this is a leadership issue. And one of my early meetings I am going to request is with Secretary Gates in Defense and seek to continue the partnership that's already been established through the senior oversight committee where both deputy secretaries from our two departments, Defense and Veterans Affairs, have made significant progress in trying to solve this problem in the last year or so.
I intend to go after this and find a way to approach the seamlessness of the transition. It just seems to me that the technology is there. This is a matter of getting the technology to do the right handshakes.
Even as we do this, we have a requirement to address the issue of Priority 8s who are going to be joining us and our roles. I need to understand just the size of the population. And I know that with the economic downturn, that size of the population is probably growing. I need to have some good numbers on what the estimates are and to be able to quantify what the resourcing requirements are so that I can make some assessments.
And within the group of Priority 8s, there may be subcategories that are more critical and should be moved forward in the category of Priority 8 veterans. But we need more information. I certainly need more information than I have today, but that's a priority.
Undergirding all of these near-term challenges is a movement to an information technology, electronically based set of business practices and applications that makes us as paperless as possible. I don't know that we will achieve, you know, true paperlessness, but there is a lot more that needs to be done that will support our decision-making, our accuracy, our ability to identify veterans and keep them in the system once they're there, all the benefits that now we seem to struggle with.
To do that, very shortly, I have a 2010 budget requirement, and so a lot of assessment, a lot of information-gathering decisions in which I have to craft a credible and an adequate 2010 request that achieves the vision that the president-elect has asked me to execute.
SEN. AKAKA: Thank you, General.
We'll continue with a five-minute question period, and I'll call on Senator Hutchison for her questions.
SEN. HUTCHISON: I think you have covered everything well on the priorities. And I particularly appreciate that you're going to jump in on those claims times because I think it's one of the hardest issues that Senator Akaka and Senator Murray and I have worked on. And we have given the money to do that, so we'll look forward to a progress report.
I would like to have your thoughts on the research that is being done, both Gulf War Syndrome, because I think that has a great potential for protection of future warriors, but also the other areas that you would stress in research for the kinds of injuries and rehabilitation that we want for our veterans of today.
GEN. SHINSEKI: Senator, my impression is there's been significant money already invested in research about Gulf War illness. A good portion of that, my sense is, has been causes. I think that research probably needs to continue. But at this point, I think I'm more interested in research that will develop treatment for the symptoms that is clearly evident among the population of veterans who went to the Gulf the first time. We may not know exactly the causes but I think we have enough information that validates that there are symptoms that must be treated with, and I'm more interested in understanding how we get on with that.
And so I look forward to the reports that I will be provided. I don't have the details now, but the reports that are already provided regarding the research and even the more recent affidavit that you received over the holidays and see how we can put together treatment for these veterans.
SEN. HUTCHISON: Thank you. I agree with you and I think as this goes forward were close to now determining that it's lack of a particular enzyme in the blood and in the brain. So I know that with the great knowledge that we're getting, we could probably have the ability to give that enzyme to people who are going in or not allow people who don't have it to enter into an area where there might be chemicals.
So I think we have made the commitment with the funding over a period of five years to be able to take that next step. And I will look forward to working with you on that and the other areas that I am interested in because we now have so many more survivors who have lost limbs because of the IEDs and the trauma research. And just to reaffirm that those would also be priorities and if there are any others that you would like for us to also look at I'd be interested in knowing.
GEN. SHINSEKI: I think really the pacesetter right now in terms of traumatic injuries to our veterans who are currently serving is probably the Department of Defense just because they've had that initial return of veterans. And they have done tremendous work certainly with the amputees on prosthetic research. I don't know exactly how the Veterans Affairs Department is set in terms of comparable capabilities, but my sense is there's a little catch-up required here.
But we have a terrific opportunity to partner with what's already been achieved in the Department of Defense and then to take it the next step as those veterans come under the care of the department. And if confirmed, that will be one of the things that I'll be interested in making an assessment on.
I think there is a requirement for research into many of the brain trauma that we're dealing with -- PTSD and TBI. My sense is that there was some level of these injuries in earlier conflicts. They have been pronounced in this one because of the size and the signature of the kinds of weaponry being used to attack individual soldiers. We probably didn't do enough in previous conflicts. And we need to ensure we don't miss this opportunity, and more research is necessary in this area as well.
SEN. HUTCHISON: We will support that. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
SEN. AKAKA: Thank you, Senator Hutchison.
And now Senator Rockefeller.
SEN. ROCKEFELLER: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
General Shinseki, one of the, I think, tragedies of the care of people generally in this country is the lack of understanding of mental illness.
And it always strikes me that if you watch TV advertisements, they're being pushed, you know. They're considered to be a part of the American situation. And some people say as much as 25 percent of the people are dependent upon some kind of mental illness help and treatment.
Veterans -- it seems to me that the work that could be done in the veterans hospitals, and there's already work being done, strike me as the model of how to educate not just physicians but the American people. Because people understand that when people go to war and they come back, they don't come back unwounded in one way or the other, particularly when they've been, you know, on two or three tours. And so I'm interested in how you see that problem.
America, we're a nation of such optimism that nobody wants to admit that because of circumstances or trauma or exhaustion or other matters that they just get depressed and they can't perform at their ordinary ability. It's a huge matter for the military and for veterans returning, not just the recent veterans but going back many years.
And I'm just interested in your approach to that because I think that you can not only help veterans but you can help the American people come to terms with what people are still reluctant to talk about.
GEN. SHINSEKI: Well, Senator, I think you that in the active military, we wrestle with that stigma and have for some time. And of late, much work has been done. There's still the reluctance of young men and women to self-refer.
We need better tools in how we reduce that stigma. And I do know that in the Department of Defense, this is a continuing discussion. A serving general officer who recently described himself as having the effects of PTSD very publicly self-referred himself. And I think that's a tremendous step in being able to deal with the stigma for others.
In the VA, that stigma shouldn't be the same. I mean, we have now transitioned people out of serving units where an upcoming mission may be of concern. Now that they're with the VA, we should be able to deal with this and address the stigma and have people comfortable in being referred or referring themselves for treatment.
What is clear about PTSD, it is a debilitating condition. But if treated early, recognized and treated, it responds to that treatment. The alternative is to let these things go unaddressed and more significant problems, maybe even catastrophic problems occur. And so I think more research needs to be done in this area but certainly along with that to reinforce the treatment that works and then to address this issue of making people comfortable with dealing with PTSD and TBI as we deal with other injuries, physical, visible injuries that result from combat, gunshot wounds and so forth. This is one that will have my attention.
SEN. ROCKEFELLER: Thank you. I have another question, but my time is up.
SEN. AKAKA: Thank you very much, Senator Rockefeller.
SEN. WICKER: Thank you.
General, a Priority 8 veteran is any veteran who receives an honorable, general or under-honorable-conditions discharge with zero percent disability who earns greater than $29,402.
There are currently 8 million veterans enrolled in this system today of all priority categories. I'm told that there are 10 million Priority 8 veterans not currently in the system now, 2.2 million Priority 8 veterans are already enrolled, and 1.2 million are actually using the system.
I would just say that I appreciate your statement that in trying to get your arms around this issue, one of the things we're going to have to learn is what resources are available to you because to move twice as many people into the system in Category 8 is going to be more demanding on the taxpayers than I think some people realize. I would just offer that.
Let my one question be about electronic medical records, and these are statistics provided to me by the VA. Ninety-eight thousand Americans die each year from medical records errors. One in seven hospital admissions occur because a medical record is not available. Twelve percent of physician orders are not executed as written, and 20 percent of laboratory tests are requested because previous studies are not accessible. Now, that's society wide, General.
But back to your goal of excellence and cutting-edge leadership to be received by the department. I would submit to the members of the committee and to you that these sorts of statistics are not acceptable.
Now, we have in the DOD VA a plan called the Information Interoperability Plan, IIP. It has 22 different initiatives with three sets of goals. The IIP describes a path for DOD and VA medical information systems to be shared. What it does not include is a system for a single electronic medical record which has been a goal that I personally have embraced. And I realize that you're going to have to go back and familiarize yourself with the details of this, but there are some people who think its unrealistic to expect this out of DOD and VA.
I think if two major corporations in the United States were merging, it wouldn't be at all unrealistic to think that the electronic information systems of both of those corporations would soon be merged and that we'd be able to make it work somehow. Some people think that doctors and providers in DOD and in VA would not use such a system. It would seem to me that, in particular, physician employees of DOD and VA could be required perhaps more easily than other physicians to enforce this sort of thing.
So I would ask you your thoughts about this at this point in time and your education to this new department, does a series of systems that will supposedly be interoperable, does that truly benefit the service member and his family? Do we need indeed a single electronic medical record that you start with in the Army and you continue with in the VA or are we going to have simply a patchwork of antiquated systems that we try to get to talk to each other?
GEN. SHINSEKI: Senator, that's a great question. I don't know. I'm not familiar with the IIP, to begin with, and I'm assuming it's the result of the SOC, the Senior Oversight Committee's, work between the two deputy secretaries. But I will find out more about it.
To me, it's not a technical or a technological issue. It is a leadership issue of agreeing what will serve either both systems or the individuals within that system.
Just an anecdote, I just happened to have a last visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center here a few weeks ago in preparation for, if confirmed, being transferred over to the VA. I happened to ask two, maybe three of the doctors who looked at me that day and asked them if they knew about the electronic medical system used by the VA. And each one of them said they did, and they thought it was an excellent system, and they wished they had it. So maybe there is some hope for some kind of agreement here between the two departments.
And I say that before I go over to make my initial visit with the secretary of Defense. But I will look for a way to create this technological, seamless transfer of information. It's not the technology, it is about leadership, in my opinion.
SEN. AKAKA: Thank you, Senator Wicker.
SEN. MURRAY: Thank you, Senator Akaka.
Thank you very much, General, for your opening statement. I very much appreciated what you called your three fundamental attributes and look forward to your implementation of that.
I did want to just say I want to thank your family for their tremendous patience sitting here. I don't know who the young gentleman is that is listening very carefully, but he's doing a better job of sitting than most of us up here. So I just wanted to tell you I appreciate his willingness to be there and support you.
GEN. SHINSEKI: They are family friends, the Fritchey (ph) family from Virginia. And John (sp) has his two sons here to expose them to the workings of government and a democracy.
And he though this was a great way for them to spend a day.
SEN. MURRAY: Excellent, excellent.
General, I wanted to ask you, over the past eight years, the VA has developed sort of a track record and culture of downplaying some very potentially embarrassing internal issues, whether it's the budget shortfalls that we saw or inaccurate suicide data, really at the expense of the veterans that we're all serving. And I wanted you to share with this committee how you as secretary can build within the VA a culture that focuses on providing for veterans needs rather than sort of avoiding public relations disasters. How do you change that culture? And what will we see under your administration?
GEN. SHINSEKI: Senator, a good question, and I do think it's about leadership, and it's something I'll go to work on the day of my arrival, if confirmed by the Senate.
As I said in the beginning, good people go to work every day in the VA. And that is my expectation. And so if I were to send a message to the good people who are dealing with the veterans who are our clients, my message would be this. Treat our veterans with respect and dignity. They're not here begging for a handout.
I'm reminded of this statement by a good friend of mine, who happens to work for McClatchy newspapers, a fellow named Joe Galloway. A simple message -- we serve veterans. Maybe even simpler, the answer is, yes, what is the question?
Not to oversimplify, but it is to change the attitude by which veterans are treated when they come to us to request that we provide the benefits and services we promised and they have earned. They are truly our clients. They don't have anywhere else to shop. They are our clients. They've retained us to do this, and we are going to deliver on that, treat them with respect. And asking them to take a number and wait or put up with records that are lost or take six months to adjudicate or, even worse, records that are thrown out and destroyed, not part of the culture that I expect governs what will happen at Veterans Affairs.
We've got to come to work with a passion to do what we're asked to do, as difficult as it is. That's why I took this job. And my hopes are that very quickly we can go through the period of adaptation and team-building and come out the end of that transition, for me, with a cohesive organization that is serving veterans.
SEN. MURRAY: Well, I look forward to that. And I hope that as part of that, your message is to all of your team members within the large bureaucracy of the VA that when potential issues come to light that sharing them openly and honestly is a better way of treating veterans than to try and figure out how to keep it from coming out.
GEN. SHINSEKI: I agree. I would just add to that, Senator, that not only are we trying to create this much-described One VA, which is team building and also cohesion, but I think we as a department have an opportunity to reach beyond our own walls and look to work with Health and Human Services, with Department of Labor, with Housing and Urban Development, Education, small businesses to put together comprehensive solutions for what we know our veterans are wrestling with.
In the veteran population there is this microcosm of all of the other issues that are being handled by other departments, and we need to be smart about how we engage one another and come up with partnering solutions that husband resources and get better results for all of us.
SEN. MURRAY: Yeah. One issue I wanted to bring to your attention quickly is the issue of suicides and suicide prevention. And the VA has made a little bit of progress on this, but we still aren't able to get a true handle on that. And I've been exploring how we can help get a memorandum of understanding or agreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention so that we can get a better handle on numbers. Could I get your willingness to work with me on making sure we understand what the scope of the problem is so we can deal with this in a --
GEN. SHINSEKI: I will.
SEN. MURRAY: -- in a much better way?
GEN. SHINSEKI: I will, Senator.
SEN. MURRAY: Okay. Thank you. Thank you, and I have additional questions but I'll wait for the second round.
SEN. AKAKA: Thank you very much, Senator Murray.
SEN. TESTER: Thank you, Chairman Akaka
And, you know, its interesting, not only can they see you on the cameras in their homes today but I understand the Iraqi and Afghanistan veterans of America are also blogging this. This is good stuff for the information technology world.
I just want to touch on electronic medical records, and you don't need to make your answers very long, just to the point. We've had several hearings on the seamless transition between DOD and VA, as I mentioned in my opening remarks. Do you think its important? What kind of urgency are you going to place on it? Is it high on your list? Is it moderate or low?
GEN. SHINSEKI: Senator, it's high on my list. I don't think I can address those near-term issues about backlog, about Iraq and Afghanistan veterans being moved from one department to the next without the electronic records and an information technology backbone that supports that.
SEN. TESTER: You said you think it's basically as simple as a leadership issue. I mean, I think that's good news. Do you have people in mind that you can influence in the DOD to make this happen? It's not within our purview.
GEN. SHINSEKI: I'm going to begin with my counterpart and then take his lead --
SEN. TESTER: Super.
GEN. SHINSEKI: -- on that. My reason for saying it's a leadership issue is that technology, you know, the power of the microprocessor solves that.
SEN. TESTER: Good. I should say when confirmed, what actions would you take to enhance medical and, maybe more importantly, mental health outreach to veterans in rural communities because were so short in the mental health (staff ?), especially in rural America?
GEN. SHINSEKI: I know that the challenge of delivery of services and benefits in the rural parts of the country is a challenge and will continue to be. I also know that there is some telemedicine opportunities. I'm led to believe that there is some promising work, maybe even in the mental health arena here. I would rely on our mental health professionals to give me a comfort level that says you can do some, a lot, maybe all of it in this manner.
I do know that in the last two years, the department has hired, I think, 4,000 additional mental health professionals with plans to hire several thousand more in the next two years, all indicating that there is the understanding this is a huge area for work to be done.
SEN. TESTER: Good. We have a large number of veterans who are Native Americans in Montana, and they have some health care issues in Indian country. And there has been some collaboration about potentially working together with Indian Health Service. What are your views on those kind of issues? Just give me an idea if you think that's possible or if it's something that you would work towards.
GEN. SHINSEKI: I would say it's something I probably need to find out more about, Senator. But I don't think I would turn away any opportunity to partner with other agencies as long as the quality that has been established in the VA has been met and that timeliness and accessibility for veterans is the benefit.
SEN. TESTER: I appreciate that. There's a Rural Veterans Health Advisory Committee. They've met once already last fall; they meet again in the spring, I believe, down in Arizona.
Would you commit to giving those folks the resources they need to finish their work, as far as making some recommendations on how we can better address?
GEN. SHINSEKI: I will find out a little bit more, but I will commit to supporting the Rural Health -- I think you're referring to the Rural Health Office that's been established. That's --
SEN. TESTER: I actually don't know who it's through. It's a Rural Health Advisory Committee that General Peake appointed, I don't about, it's been about a year ago.
GEN. SHINSEKI: I think we're speaking about the same thing.
SEN. TESTER: Okay, good. And then the other thing is is once they get a report, would you commit to actually taking a hard look at it? I'm not saying implement it, but certainly take a hard look at it to make sure it just doesn't end up another report on a shelf.
GEN. SHINSEKI: I will. I will.
SEN. TESTER: Thank you very much.
SEN. AKAKA: Thank you very much Senator Tester.
General Shinseki, you indicated in response to pre-hearing questions that you would be an aggressive advocate for the fiscal needs of the department. I'm most gratified to hear this. Along with President-elect Obama, you've indicated that you would support advanced funding for VA. My question to you is, will the FY 2010 budget contain this funding mechanism?
GEN. SHINSEKI: A good question, Senator. I don't know, but I intend to find out. If confirmed, that will be an initial set of questions that I deal with as we begin to put together that budget.
SEN. AKAKA: There is an interest on our committee that was mentioned.
GEN. SHINSEKI: Yeah. I do support the advanced appropriation mechanism. Having lived with continuing resolutions in another life, I know that there is impact, especially when we're dealing with health care and other issues for veterans. I would prefer to have a mechanism that allows that to continue without interruption.
SEN. AKAKA: Given the IG's dual responsibility to the secretary as the head of the department and to Congress, do you believe you'll be able to support the IG's work, even if a particular job might bring adverse publicity to VA?
GEN. SHINSEKI: I have absolutely no problem with that, Senator. I have lived with the dual-reporting responsibility of the inspector general. I've always seen the inspector general as part of my team, helping me to find and solve problems that might not ordinarily come to my attention. So the dual-reporting chain does protect the independence and partiality here, and I think that's important in any organization.
SEN. AKAKA: General Shinseki, I want to follow up on your comments about creating a trusting and positive relationship with veterans and their families. Given missteps in the past on health care matters and the dismal performance in claims processing, how do you begin to foster trust in that relationship?
GEN. SHINSEKI: Senator, that's just a process that begins with me and begins with my opportunity build a good, strong and supportive team inside the Department of Veterans Affairs. And my experience, there's nothing that builds trust faster than performance and delivering on promises. And that's what we intend to do. If confirmed, that's what we intend to do.
SEN. AKAKA: Well, thank you very much for your responses.
Now let me call on Senator Rockefeller for his further questions.
SEN. ROCKEFELLER: One of the great tests of who I expect and who I know you to be, and because of what you did in terms of the Armed Services Committee and the effect that that had on the American people was magical. It brought the whole concept of truth and need into a kind of convergence which -- maybe that overdramifies (sic) it a little bit -- kind of electrified the nation. It certainly electrified us here in Washington.
You're going the be secretary of Veterans Affairs, and that means that every single piece of testimony that you give is going to have to be vetted by the Office of Management and Budget. Now, Peter Orszag is one of the finest men I know. He really is good. He's a lot more than a numbers cruncher.
But there will come a time -- and I remember when I was chairman and I used to have real brawls with the White House on funding levels, and won once -- once, once -- (laughs) -- and they told OMB to change their view. But you're constrained in what you can say. And that presents a problem, I think, for a man of your nature and your truthfulness. Because as Senator Murray, who's always spot on, says, that, you know, that telling the truth about the needs is part of what builds confidence in veterans.
It also builds confidence in the 220,000 people who will be working for you, many of whom have been there for many, many years and have not changed their ways in many, many years. And that's another subject which I won't get into. How do you establish that you really mean it in a large bureaucracy? And sometimes you have to do that by getting rid of people who are simply unwilling to adhere to what the president-elect and the secretary of Veterans Affairs wants.
But I really think the business of truthfulness on veterans -- I think Senator Murray and Senator Akaka would agree with me -- that there were two things -- we discussed this in our conversations -- two tectonic changes that occurred last year. And one was as a result of the Walter Reed Army Hospital, Building Number 9 situation, when all of a sudden it came crashing down upon us that we had not been serving veterans.
And I've been on this committee for 24 years and it was a crushing realization to me, but on the other hand an inspiring one, too, that sometimes you just have to, you have to pay for what you're going to get. And when you're dealing with veterans, that puts you into a whole different category of obligation. But the nation understands even if the bureaucracy of government does not.
So, what I'm asking you -- and please don't answer because I do want you to get confirmed -- (laughter) -- is to say, you know, that this is not enough.
Patty -- thanks mostly to the work of Patty Murray, Senator Murray, who you will find is one of the best friends you'll ever have -- she just got us a whole bunch more money. And we all felt pretty good about it -- $2 billion. And then you actually look at it, I mean, over the -- that actually was more than that, 3 (billion dollars). And then when you looked at it, it was wholly insufficient. It was just better than it had been before.
Well, you're not interested in just what's better than has been before, but you're interested in what is sufficient to do, you know, to make you and 220,000 people roar out of bed every morning and charge off to work because they know they're going to be changing the lives of people in a permanent way.
So, I'd make that comment to you that you will soon find yourself, I think, in a trap. And I think it's going to be a particularly hard trap for a man of your stature. I always make this point before a vital testimony so people know that they have to ask themselves the question, am I listening to General Shinseki, or am I listening to the Office of Management and Budget?
And you know, there's not much money around these days after we finish doing whatever we have to do. But I just pray that you will level with us. Maybe it doesn't even have to be in a public setting. You will level with us about where you are being short changed and where you really want to get things done and the money just is not there.
Government is capable of changing. And I think we have a very gutsy new president-elect. And I think he wants to see results in the work that you're doing. So I'd just make that comment and ask you not to comment on it. (Laughter.)
SEN. AKAKA: Thank you very much, Senator Rockefeller.
Now we'll have Senator Murray.
SEN. MURRAY: Senator Rockefeller, thank you very much for that statement. I think we all agree with that and look forward to seeing you implement a real change of culture and heart.
Let me ask you about women veterans because it is an issue that I feel very passionately about. Women make up about 14 percent of the current active duty force, but women still are much a minority at the VA. A lot of women don't see themselves as veterans. They don't get the adequate care when they do in. The VA wasn't built for women, but they now have to be part of that. And I wonder if you could share a little short answer with us about what you hope to do on that front.
GEN. SHINSEKI: Sure. Senator, I watched the Army go through the same process of adjustment. And we may be playing a little bit of catch-up as well here in Veterans Affairs. When I entered the service, we were primarily male, a draft Army. And I watched the changes for the better that occurred over that time. But we were always playing catch-up.
I understand that today, women account for about 14 percent of our deployed formations. Estimates, I'm told, is that the VA by 2020 is going to be 15 percent women. Now is the time for us to anticipate that coming change that we know is going to occur and put in place the kinds of programs that will accommodate those changes without playing catch-up. So it's a good time.
I do know that VA has now directed a full-time women's veteran program manager at each of its 153 hospitals. And so that's recognition. There is also serving the secretary a Womens Advisory Committee as well. And I look forward to meeting them and getting on this.
SEN. MURRAY: Okay, we look forward to working with you on that. Over the past eight years, we have seen the Bush administration propose new health care user fees and increased copays. I saw recently a study by the University of Pennsylvania that found that the VA's pharmaceutical copay increase back in 2002 actually caused a 19 percent drop in medication adherence by our veterans. So it had a very negative affect. And I'm hopeful that we don't from this administration those kinds of proposals for increased copays and fees. I know it's premature to ask you what your budget is going to look like, but can you tell us what you are planning to do in terms of copays and fees for our vets?
GEN. SHINSEKI: Well, Senator, I just need to learn more about this. And I do know, under these economic conditions, all of our veterans are under stress. And so I need to get in and understand where we are.
SEN. MURRAY: Okay, just as a heads up, this Senate has turned down those requests every time. So if you want an honest budget, it might better come to us without those in them.
Thank you for coming to my office and chatting with me about a number of issues that we talked about, in particular the Walla Walla outpatient clinic which we had a great discussion on. We've made a lot of progress there. We want to keep going. And I appreciate your commitment to that.
I did also want to invite you out to my state, in particular. We have a number of VA facilities. I noticed that in your questions that you answered for the pre-hearing, that you said you wanted to get out to see some of the VA facilities. And I think if you have the time, and once you get settled, I'd love to have you come out and see some of the work that we are doing. And I know our veterans would appreciate your being out there on the ground.
I did want to ask one last question that I think is important. The VA has been a very passive organization -- we're here, you can come to us. It seems to me, particularly with our Iraqi and Afghanistan veterans who are coming home, a different generation looking at the world differently in how they perceive it, we are losing a lot of our veterans, particularly with PTSD and TBI, not those visible wounds of war, because it has been a passive organization. And I'm concerned about the outcome of that.
Do you share my view that we need to start being more of a proactive organization in the VA, rather than just a passive organization? And if so, how do we get there?
GEN. SHINSEKI: Senator, we can't transform unless we are proactive. And so I think this is part of that larger, overarching vision that I've been provided.
And in order to get there, the Veterans Affairs Department is going to have to change a bit of the culture and the way that it's been doing business, all for the good. But my responsibility is to lead that change, and proactivity is something I'm usually comfortable with.
SEN. MURRAY: Okay. Well, General, I really do appreciate you taking on the head of this agency. We want it not to be business as usual. We want to not hear just about a bureaucracy but about a people organization. You've set that vision out for us. And I assure you, if you move forward with that aggressively and open and honestly with this committee, we will work as hard as we can with you to make sure our veterans get the care they need. So thank you very, very much.
SEN. AKAKA: Thank you very much, Senator Murray.
And thank you and mahalo, General Shinseki, for your full and open participation in today's hearing. Every organization needs an unquestioned leader, and I am anxious to have you assume that role at VA as soon as feasible.
As I mentioned in my statement, the plan is for your nomination to go directly to the Senate calendar on Inauguration Day and for the Senate to act on it the same day. If there is no objection, I ask that any member who wishes to submit any post-hearing questions of General Shinseki to do so today, and that the nominee return them by close of business tomorrow.
So we look forward to this speedy action and look forward to your being confirmed. And again, I want to say, thank you to you and to your family. And we want to wish you well in the future and in the future of our country. We ask God's blessing upon you, your family and, of course, our country and our new administration.
And, with that, this hearing is adjourned. (Sounds gavel.)
GEN. SHINSEKI: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.