Choosing continuity with the Obama administration at one of the government’s most troubled agencies, President-elect Donald Trump on Wednesday tapped David Shulkin to be head of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Mr. Shulkin, an accomplished medical doctor who would be the first nonveteran to head the department, has served as VA’s undersecretary for health since June 2015. He also has been chief executive of the Veterans Health Administration, the agency that has been rocked by accusations of maltreating veterans.
During the election campaign, Mr. Trump said stories of veterans dying while waiting for treatment were proof that President Obama was failing. But by keeping Mr. Shulkin, Mr. Trump signaled that the department needs an experienced hand to fix the VA.
“David is going to do a fantastic job,” Mr. Trump said at a press conference. He said he interviewed at least 100 candidates for the job.
The president-elect also said he is looking to form partnerships between the VA and world-class private hospitals such as the Cleveland Clinic and the Mayo Clinic to help improve care for veterans.
Mr. Shulkin must be confirmed by the Senate, though it’s unlikely that will be much of a hurdle.
He won confirmation to his undersecretary’s post in 2015 on a voice vote, and Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill praised him Wednesday. Conservative veterans groups were more measured, saying the VA has a long way to go before it delivers the kind of care veterans deserve.
The department was rocked several years ago by a report that dozens of veterans died after being shunted onto secret wait lists at a VA clinic in Phoenix. Other reports revealed secret wait lists and poor management nationwide, leaving veterans struggling for care.
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the Government Accountability Office is poised to rank veterans health care as a “high risk” issue, citing waste, fraud and other problems.
“There is a tremendous amount of work to be done — by the VA and by Congress — to change the paradigm at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson, Georgia Republican and chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “Dr. Shulkin understands the critical importance of working hand in hand with Congress on enacting meaningful, bipartisan reforms to help right the ship at the VA.”
Mr. Shulkin’s confirmation could become a proxy fight over the direction of the VA, with Democrats seeking assurances that Mr. Shulkin won’t move further toward privatizing the VA by expanding the department’s Choice Program.
That program, enacted after the 2014 scandal broke, has allowed veterans to seek care at non-VA hospitals at government expense.
Mr. Shulkin has been in charge of that program since his June 2015 appointment, and his support of the plan is likely to be at the center of his Senate hearings.
“I look forward to bringing Dr. Shulkin into my office to ask him tough questions about fixing the Choice Program, streamlining care in the community, reducing wait times at the VA, and delivering on our nation’s commitment to the brave men and women who served this nation,” said Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, also made clear that her party will oppose efforts to divert resources away from VA medical facilities and to private doctors.
“House Democrats will continue to fight any efforts to privatize VA,” she said in a statement. “We must build the VA up, not down, with innovative, transformative and fundamental change to meet the needs and challenges facing our nation’s veterans, families and caregivers.”
Mr. Shulkin has said the program is a good idea but must be run more efficiently. In a statement Wednesday, he suggested that he would conduct a top-to-bottom review of the Choice Program and all other aspects of health care at the VA.
“We are both eager to begin reforming the areas in our Veterans Affairs system that need critical attention, and do it in a swift, thoughtful and responsible way,” he said.
Mark Lucas, executive director of Concerned Veterans for America, said Mr. Shulkin “will now have ultimate responsibility over the agency and we are hopeful he will take it in a new direction.”
“CVA will seek to partner with Shulkin on urgently needed reforms, such as empowering veterans to access care outside the VA when the VA is failing them,” Mr. Lucas said.
Another issue that will test Mr. Shulkin is the handling of VA employees.
Part of the reforms made after the VA wait-list scandals gave the secretary the power to quickly fire senior executives he may deem to be underperforming.
But Secretary Bob McDonald has faced criticism from Congress for not using that power to get rid of the executives involved in the wait-list scandal and other management boondoggles.
The American Federation of Government Employees, the labor union that represents more than 220,000 VA employees, said it supported Mr. Shulkin and expected him to work to keep the department intact, fending off any more efforts to turn to private care.
Some outside veterans groups also applauded Mr. Shulkin’s nomination, saying he represents continuity with changes made under Mr. Obama.
“This wise decision by President-elect Trump validates what we’ve long known and said — that the Veterans Health Administration is on the right track despite a prolonged, concerted smear campaign aimed at dismantling and privatizing veterans’ care,” said Joseph R. Chenelly, executive director of AMVETS. “We applaud the [Trump] transition team’s diligence.”