Friday, October 17, 2008

VA using veterans in political game in North Carolina

Watt questions politics around VA; timing of letter and Dole's stance raise concerns for lawmaker
Friday, October 17, 2008 1:22 AM

By Kathy Chaffin


Rep. Mel Watt said he was surprised to see an article in Wednesday's Post quoting a letter Veterans Affairs Secretary James B. Peake sent to Sen. Elizabeth Dole.

With the exception of one change, Watt said he received the same letter from Peake saying that he has asked his staff to review and consider concerns raised about proposed changes to eliminate emergency, surgical and inpatient services at the Hefner VA Medical Center.

Though the letter was dated Wednesday (Oct. 15), Watt said it arrived at his Charlotte office via e-mail at 8:47 a.m. Thursday.

"I can't understand how she got the letter before I got the letter," he said. "It don't smell right. This is supposed to be on the level and not about politics."

Dole's office released copies of three letters to the Post on Wednesday night: two dated Oct. 1 and Oct. 8 expressing her concerns about the changes and Peake's Oct. 15 response dated for Wednesday. Dole's letters were identical, and her representative said the later one was a followup to the earlier letter.

The only difference in Peake's letter to Dole and his letter to Watt was that he referred to the dates of their letters sent to him. Watt sent a letter to Peake on Sept. 22 addressing his concerns about the plan to eliminate inpatient, emergency and surgical services as part of a transition to a long-term care and mental health facility for veterans.

Watt, who is running for his ninth term as the 12th District representative, said he's not upset that he received the same letter as Dole. "That happens all the time," he said.

What does upset him, he said, is that he wrote to Peake first and didn't get a response until the morning after Dole's office had sent out a press release with the letter. "It seems to me that Dole is trying to use your newspaper to make it sound like this was a response to her letter," he said.

Watt said he was preparing a followup letter to Peake, thanking him for his response and asking for two things. "No. 1, I want to see the plan, which is what I requested on Sept. 22," he said.

And No. 2, Watt said he wants to know what Peake is going to do between now and Nov. 15, the date he specified in the letter as the deadline for his staff to provide him with the results of the review.

"Is it just full speed ahead?" he asked. "And is this just a political response to get Liddy Dole through the election? I think these people are playing games, and some of this has to do with politics.
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