Kerry slams Bush pick for VA post

Nominee knew of problems at Walter Reed in 2004.

Published April 13, 2007 10:04PM (EDT)

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry announced Friday that he would fight "tooth and nail" against President Bush's nomination of Dr. Michael Kussman to a senior post at the Department of Veterans Affairs. As a VA official back in 2004, Kussman co-chaired a task force that issued a report indicating there were problems with healthcare for injured veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

In an interview with Salon, Kerry said he would oppose Kussman's nomination as undersecretary for health at the VA. "My concerns are that this fellow was part of the problem of delivery of care to the veterans," explained Kerry. "This administration has an unhappy record of taking people who have not performed particularly well and putting them in another important job."

Kerry joined Democratic Sens. Barack Obama and Patty Murray in questioning why more was not done long ago to fix problems at Walter Reed after a government report documenting failures there was distributed to VA and Pentagon officials in the fall of 2004. Salon obtained a copy of the report and published it on Wednesday. On Thursday, at an appropriations subcommittee hearing, Murray pressed Dr. Kussman on exactly who in the government received the report and what if anything they did about it. Sen. Obama sent a letter to President Bush citing Salon's article and expressing concerns about Kussman's nomination.

At the time the report was prepared, Kussman was co-chairman of the Seamless Transition Task Force, a joint VA-Department of Defense effort designed to make it easier for soldiers to deal with the twin medical bureaucracies of the DOD and the VA. Both agencies provide healthcare for veterans and hand out disability benefits to injured troops. The task force produced the report based on focus-group interviews with veterans and their families. It showed soldiers at Walter Reed to be "frustrated, confused, sometimes angry."

In a Senate hearing on Thursday, Kussman told Murray that the VA in 2004 came up with a "very thorough action plan" to fix problems there -- at least for VA activities at the hospital. It is unclear what, if anything, the Pentagon did on that side of the bureaucratic divide.

On Friday, Sen. Kerry's office released a statement calling on the president to "reconsider" Kussman's nomination. In his interview with Salon, Kerry bashed the White House for using soldiers as a backdrop in photo ops, but not stepping up to the plate on veterans' healthcare. "They use them as props," Kerry insisted. "They send them to war. They talk about support for the troops." But when it comes to veterans' healthcare, he said, "they've done zero planning and they've put inadequate funds on the table. I think that is a disgrace beyond words, and they ought to be ashamed of themselves."

By Mark Benjamin

Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for Salon based in Washington, D.C. Read his other articles here.

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