Is the Department of Veterans Affairs finally turning a corner or is the worst yet to come?

From Walter Reed to false diagnoses of personality disorder, a Department that was never given the resources to provide health care for returning Iraq soldiers has relied on scandalous shortcuts. A glimmer of hope was provided yesterday, though, when the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee unanimously approved the nomination of James Peake as new department secretary. Peake promised that he will hire more medical staff and stop using so much of the department budget on bonuses to senior officials.

A separate House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing, however, offered a depressing glimpse at the escalating health care problems the next secretary will inherit. The hearing was prompted by a CBS News report that veterans are twice as likely to commit suicide as the rest of the population. Each day an estimated 17 veterans commit suicide.

Dr. Ira Katz, the Deputy Chief of Staff of Patient Care at VA, testified that those numbers will significantly increase with more troops returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Katz also related his findings that more than 100,000 of the 750,000 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have requested mental health treatment. At least those veterans can recognize their need for help, as Katz also noted that as many as 48 percent of returning troops suffer from posttraumatic stress.

That the government institution in charge of veterans is only now developing a structure to deal with mental health problems is certainly alarming. Even more troubling is that new leadership will be in the process of developing new programs at the same time that thousands more people are entering the VA health system. Peake acknowledged to the committee that if he gets the job he will be in “constant crisis mode.”