Murray Calls for Honesty from the VA at Nomination Hearing for Top Health Post

May 16 2007

Murray presses nominee for critical healthcare position on reports of inflated VA achievements, the VA bonus scandal, and budget shortfalls

AUDIO: Senator Murray questions Dr. Kussman

(Washington, D.C.) - Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) questioned Dr. Michael J. Kussman, Acting Undersecretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) for Health, about his role in exaggerated reports of past VA successes, failures to present honest funding needs, and the awarding of controversial bonuses at a time when the VA continues to fail veterans. Murray's questioning comes as the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee considers Kussman's nomination as Undersecretary of Health at the VA.

"Unfortunately, based on our experiences with VA leadership over the past few years, I have serious doubts about the level of frankness we can expect from a VA that has tried to minimize the cost, both in money and in lives, of this war," said Senator Murray. "I am looking to find somebody in this position that we can trust and who will bring about a culture of change. If we are not getting accurate information, if we are being told a happy picture and not getting the reality, we cannot serve our nation's veterans."

Murray has worked to provide oversight and funding to VA health programs including helping to lead a historic joint committee hearing on health care transition from the DOD to VA, and increasing the nation's investment in VA care by more than $3.5 billion in the 2008 Senate Budget Resolution and $1.8 billion in the Emergency Supplemental bill that the President vetoed.

Senator Murray's opening remarks from today's hearing follow:

AUDIO: Senator Murray's opening statement

Thank you very much for holding this important hearing on the nomination of Dr. Kussman to be Under Secretary of Health at the Veterans Health Administration (VHA).

This is an Important Job at a Critical Time

It goes without saying that the position for which Dr. Kussman has been nominated is critically important; both to the millions of veterans who rely on the VA for their healthcare and to the thousands of hard working VA employees who care for our veterans.

Dr. Kussman has Experience

If we based this nomination on Dr. Kussman's resume alone, there is a good chance that he would already be confirmed. I don't think many people will argue that Dr. Kussman lacks the experience, or the education, to qualify him for this position. In fact, his nomination, as all of my colleagues know, was vetted by a ten member search commission that consisted of representatives of the VA, DoD, private sector medical groups, and veterans service organizations.

But with our nation at war and more than 1.5 million service members who have been deployed overseas, we can't go by resume alone. It is now more important than ever to fill the VA's top health position with someone who, in addition to being eminently qualified, will:

  • provide Congress with honest and candid assessments of the VA's challenges, and

  • stand up to this Administration, which has placed politics above the needs of our veterans too many times.

VA Faces Challenges

Dr. Kussman has been nominated to the top VA health position at a time of great difficulty for the VA. The system is stretched to the limit trying to care for new veterans, while also serving existing veterans. Our Vietnam veterans are getting older, and many of them will be seeking care for age-related conditions at the same time that more and more of our newest veterans will be needing care for the wounds they suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At the same time the VA struggles to address these issues, it must also:

  • work with DoD to improve the seamless transition process,

  • reduce waiting times for veterans seeking care at VA healthcare facilities,

  • expand access to mental health services, and

  • address care for patients with TBI.

And those are just the healthcare challenges, to say nothing of the benefit backlog and other issues affecting the rest of the VA.

This brewing storm will require serious planning and unfiltered honesty from the VA, so that Congress can provide the resources and the oversight necessary to ensure that our veterans receive high quality healthcare in a timely and affordable manner.

My Concerns

Unfortunately, based on our experiences with VA leadership over the past few years, I have serious doubts about the level of frankness we can expect from a VA that has tried to minimize the cost, both in money and in lives, of this war.

We haven't been able to get straight answers or real numbers out of the VA. The GAO has found - in report after report - that VA has misled Congress, concealed funding problems, and based it's projections on inaccurate models.

More recently, we learned from a McClatchy news report that the VA has repeatedly exaggerated the past successes of the VA medical system. This must change.

We also haven't been able to get responses to our inquiries in a timely manner. Over the past several years, I have witnessed the VA transform itself into an agency that guards information like a mother bear guarding its young. It recently took the VA three months to respond to questions I submitted at a hearing in February. This must change.


With all these challenges, the VA keeps doing things that undermine our confidence in its leadership. Recently, we learned that VA officials received bonuses - while veterans faced backlogs for benefits. Just yesterday, the Associated Press reported that - "Nearly two dozen officials who received hefty performance bonuses last year at the Veterans Affairs Department also sat on the boards charged with recommending the payments." That strikes me as a conflict of interest, and I plan to ask Dr. Kussman about it this morning.

Mr. Chairman, aside from the VA Secretary himself, there is perhaps no more important position affecting the health and well being of our nation's veterans than the Under Secretary of Health. Decisions made by the Under Secretary affect how long a patient has to wait to receive care, the quality of the care provided, and many other areas. I look forward to hearing from Dr. Kussman regarding these very important issues, and I welcome the testimony from our witnesses on the first panel.