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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The Department of Veteran Affairs is the second largest government agency with 235,000 employees. It expects to treat some 5.5 million patients this year.

And we're joined by the secretary of veteran affairs, James Nicholson. He's a combat veteran of the Vietnam War as well as the former chair of the Republican National Committee. Welcome to the program.

Secretary JAMES NICHOLSON (Department of Veteran Affairs): Thank you.

BLOCK: Secretary Nicholson, how do you account for the flood of stories that are coming in from veterans about substandard care, mistreatment, neglect of veterans in the VA system, especially after those Washington Post stories ran? Those reporters said they received thousands of e-mails and phone calls.

Sec. NICHOLSON: Well, first let me say, as a Vietnam veteran myself, veterans of this country deserve the very best that we can provide. And whenever there's one case of them not getting it, it just pains my heart to hear that. The VA is a big and good organization, and as the commander of the disabled American veterans said on Friday, he said the VA is recognized as one of the best in the nation for its health care and then went on to quote a study done by Harvard Medical School. It also said it's the best care available anywhere for some of the most common life-threatening illnesses.

But when these cases come to the light, when we are not doing our best, it's unacceptable. And it's my responsibility, and we have to take the steps necessary to fix this.

BLOCK: And what steps are those?

Sec. NICHOLSON: I today announced that we are going to hire 100 new patient advocates, and we're going to put those out in our treatment centers where we're treating these young returnees from Iraq and Afghanistan. I want them to attach themselves to those patients and their families to cut the red tape and to cut the sometimes just overbearing bureaucracy that can confront these people.

These patient advocates will see that, you know, they're working the system for these people and that no one should ever get lost in this system.

BLOCK: Well, let me ask you about that. The VA now has a backlog of 400,000 benefits claims. I believe the average time to process a claim is six months. Do you think 100 patient advocates is enough to make a dent in that backlog?

Sec. NICHOLSON: I was talking about health care. We also administer benefits, and in that two things we're doing immediately is we're making the Iraq-Afghanistan returnees priorities in that benefit adjudication system. And I'm also going to implement a program where, when they file a claim, we're going to make a presumption of its validity and process that claim and start paying on it very quickly.

And frankly, it's one of the, you know, the benefits that comes from getting, you know, this kind of glare. It points out the immediacy or the need to take this kind of action.

BLOCK: Secretary Nicholson, a lot of people would say the immediacy of this problem has been there for several years now, since these wars have been going on. This is not a problem related to the reporting that was done in the last couple of weeks, and they're wondering why these changes weren't made long ago.

Sec. NICHOLSON: Well, this backlog has been something that on - the claims has built up because there's a record number of new claims coming in because we're doing very aggressive outreach to our veterans, educating them in what they're eligible for and encouraging them to come on in and file a claim. And on the medical side, we're taking all the actions that we can.

Another that we're doing is that we're going to start screening all of these returnees from the combat zone for the possibility of traumatic brain damage. That is a new kind of injury in this war, and we are developing the expertise in our polytrauma centers to treat it.

BLOCK: The number of changes that you're announcing today - the screening and more patient advocates to help try to cut through the red tape - would these changes have come about if it hadn't been for the reporting?

Sec. NICHOLSON: It's possible that they might not have, or they might not have with the, you know, the rapidity with which we're doing it. Our goal is to do things that serves the veterans in the manner that they deserve, the best way that we can.

BLOCK: Well Secretary Nicholson, thanks for talking with us.

Sec. NICHOLSON: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's James Nicholson, secretary of veterans affairs.

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