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Veterans Affairs chief quits amid criticism on care

Hospitals, clinics under scrutiny

WASHINGTON -- Secretary Jim Nicholson of the Veterans Affairs Administration abruptly resigned yesterday after months of struggles by the Bush administration to defend charges of shoddy healthcare for veterans injured in the Iraq war.

Nicholson, a former Republican National Committee chairman and a Vietnam veteran, was picked by President Bush to head the Veterans Affairs Administration in 2005. Planning to return to the private sector, he said his resignation is to take effect no later than Oct. 1. Nicholson, 69, is the latest in a line of senior officials heading for the exits in the final 1 1/2 years of the administration.

"It has been an honor and privilege to lead the VA during this historic time for our men and women who have worn the uniform," Nicholson said in a statement. "We have accomplished so much and the VA is always striving to improve our services to veterans."

His resignation comes amid intense political and public scrutiny of the Pentagon and VA after reports of shoddy outpatient care of injured troops and veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and elsewhere.

It also ends a beleaguered two-year tenure in which Nicholson repeatedly fought off calls for his resignation over the VA's unexpected $1.3 billion shortfall in 2005 that put healthcare at risk; last summer's theft of 26.5 million veterans' personal data in what was the government's largest security breach; and, more recently, the award of $3.8 million in bonuses to senior officials who were responsible for the agency's budget problems.

Walter Reed is a Pentagon-run facility, but charges of poor treatment relating to poor coordination quickly extended to the VA's vast network of 1,400 hospitals and clinics. The VA also has a backlog of disability payments to injured veterans, with overwhelming delays of 177 days that Nicholson has called unacceptable.

"Secretary Nicholson's resignation should be welcome news for all veterans," said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "The VA under Secretary Nicholson has been woefully unprepared for the influx of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, consistently underestimating the number of new veterans who would seek care, and failing to spend the money Congress allotted to treat mental health issues."

His departure comes at a critical time. Nicholson most recently headed a presidential task force charged with making immediate improvements to healthcare in which he pledged to take "personal responsibility."

Both Congress and a presidential commission chaired by Bob Dole, former Republican senator from Kansas, and Donna Shalala, former Health and Human Services secretary, are planning to push sweeping changes in how care is administered.

A spokesman for the VA, Matt Smith, said Nicholson would work to facilitate a transition until a replacement is found. In the meantime, a strategic joint group of the Pentagon and VA is being headed by VA Deputy Secretary Gordon Mansfield to oversee coordination and other changes.

Political blogs have speculated for months that Nicholson might resign to run for senator or governor in Colorado, but a VA spokesman said yesterday that Nicholson had ruled out any such bids.

"The next secretary needs to be an advocate for veterans, not an apologist for the administration," said Senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat and frequent critic of Nicholson who sits on the Veterans Affairs Committee.

"The fact is, veterans have been right to be disappointed in Jim Nicholson's leadership at VA," said Senator Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat, a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, and a 2008 presidential candidate. "It is clear that Secretary Nicholson is leaving the VA worse off than he found it."