A Look at the V.A. Secretary Nominee

Retired Lt. Gen. James B. Peake is testifying before the Senate today as President Bush's nominee for Veterans Administration secretary. We'll have a roundup on what was said after it's over, but now let's take a look at who Peake is and where he's coming from.

Here are his vitals:

Name: Dr. James Benjamin Peake
Age: 63
Born: June 18, 1944; St. Louis, Mo.
Education B.S., United States Military Academy, 1966; M.D., Cornell University, 1972; graduate, U.S. Army War College, 1988.
War Service: Vietnam
Awarded: Silver Star, Bronze Star with "V" device, Purple Heart with oak leaf cluster
Other: former Army surgeon general with 40 years in military medicine; if confirmed, he will be the first general and first physician to hold the job

Since his nomination, Peake doesn't seem afraid to speak critically about the Veterans Administration, while still acknowledging the good work of its rank-and-file employees. As he said upon nomination:

"The disability system is largely a 1945 product, 1945 processes, around a 1945 family unit. About everybody that has studied it recently said it is time to do some revisions."

Among the questions senators asked today are requests for clarification over Peake's involvement with QTC Management, Inc. QTC is a company holding contracts with the VA, and so Peake says he's cutting all ties and deferring contract decisions to others in VA. As Salon reports, some are suspect about the Bush administration's ties with QTC. Former VA Secretary Anthony Principi was taken from QTC and is now backing working there. From Salon:

When a veteran first applies for that compensation, a doctor conducts a physical to help determine how much money he or she deserves. Historically, VA doctors do most of those examinations. But increasingly they are being performed by QTC Management, the for-profit contractor that employed Peake as its chief operating officer from 2006 until now.

The company has a virtual lock on the expanding business of performing the physicals on veterans, which help determine how much they should get in disability checks from the VA.

In addition, the Associated Press reports:

To alleviate other possible conflicts of interest, Peake also told the Senate committee that he would divest stock holdings in more than 57 companies, many of them major pharmaceutical companies such as Aventis Pharmaceuticals, Bristol Myers, Medtronic, Wyeth and Pfizer, that either currently or might do business with the VA, said a Senate staffer who demanded anonymity because the information had not been made public.

Peake's response to QTC questioning today was simply that he'll do whatever the Senate needs to assure them there's nothing fishy going on with QTC. Aside from this issues, the AP notes that there's not much resistance to his nomination.

Even the administration's most ardent critic on the committee, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., plans tough questions but expects him to be confirmed."The problems at the VA are huge, and lives are at stake," she said. "I hope General Peake's the guy for the job, because this administration has failed to plan and failed to be honest and we simply can't waste any more time when it comes to getting this right."