- The Washington Times - Monday, February 13, 2017

The Senate unanimously confirmed David Shulkin on Monday night as President Trump’s new secretary of veterans affairs, putting the first nonveteran ever in charge of the agency with a $182 billion budget and chronic unresolved challenges from the Obama administration in providing health care for veterans.

A practicing physician, Mr. Shulkin has served since July 2015 as undersecretary for the agency’s largest division, the Veterans Health Administration, which has about 300,000 employees in more than 1,200 health care facilities serving nearly 9 million veterans annually.

He takes over a department saddled with scandals, from delays in veterans’ care to the payment of millions in taxpayer-funded bonuses for employees to retaliation against whistleblowers.

President Obama had dismissed one VA secretary, Eric K. Shinseki, as the department’s problems mounted in 2014, but the troubles persisted under the last secretary, Bob McDonald.

“I am hopeful Dr. Shulkin will break away from the failed policies of the last two years under Bob McDonald,” said Brandon Coleman, a disabled veteran and whistleblowing VA employee in Phoenix. “I am also hopeful Dr. Shulkin will bring transparency to the Department, and whistleblowers will finally be protected instead of hunted for simply telling the truth.”

Trump officials say Mr. Shulkin has the management skills and the passion to turn around the VA. He’s also confronting one of the toughest jobs in Washington.

The Government Accountability Office is expected to release a report this month that will place the VA health system on its “high risk” list for the third consecutive year due to persistent waste, fraud or mismanagement.

The Department’s Office of Inspector General also reported last month that the VA awarded more than $177 million in improper relocation or retention bonuses in 2015 to 238 employees, many of them executives. The agency’s watchdog blamed “ineffective oversight.”

Perhaps no other VA facility sums up the department’s problems better than the VA Medical Center in Phoenix, which has had seven directors since the scandal erupted there in 2014 about VA officials falsifying patient wait times while more than 40 veterans died awaiting care.

A survey of VA employees in Phoenix last month found that less than one-third believe their supervisors have integrity or that whistleblowers will be protected.

Dr. Shulkin has promised accountability,” Mr. Coleman said. “This means we can no longer simply shift ‘bad apple’ administrators from one facility to the next. If administrators are shown to have committed wrongdoing or retaliation, they should be fired, period.”

He also favors choice in where veterans can obtain health care, saying “we should not be forced to use” lowest-rated facilities such as the one in Phoenix.

Mr. Trump’s 10-point plan to reform the VA includes providing veterans with the choice of taxpayer-funded vouchers for private health care. Currently, veterans can only go outside the VA system if they can’t get an appointment at a VA facility within 30 days or live more than 40 miles away.

During his confirmation hearing, Mr. Shulkin told senators that he would resist any plans to “privatize” veterans’ health services, but also said he wants to implement a more effective, community-integrated system. “I will seek major reform and a transformation of VA,” he said.

The president’s plan also includes creating a 24-hour hotline for VA complaints, firing bad employees and creating a commission to investigate wrongdoing.

Mr. Obama promised to cut into the backlog of veterans’ claims for disability benefits and pensions, pledging to reduce the number from more than 600,000 in 2013 to zero by 2015. While the Obama administration did reduce the claims backlog by nearly 85 percent, it never achieved the goal of eliminating the backlog, which stood at more than 90,000 claims pending in January.

Concerned Veterans for America said Monday it supports legislation that would allow certified congressional staffers to access the Veterans Benefits Administration database for updates on veterans’ claims, saying it would speed up the claims process. 

“Veterans currently face unacceptably long wait times for information on their disability benefits claims and, as it stands now, their elected officials are often hampered by bureaucracy when trying to help them,” said CVA policy director Dan Caldwell. “By allowing congressional staffers to access records from VBA’s database, members of Congress can better address their constituents’ issues and get the claims process moving at a faster speed.”


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