President Donald Trump's pick to lead the Veterans Affairs Department, David Shulkin, promises to meet the healthcare needs of millions of veterans and is rejecting a dismantling of the beleaguered agency or wide-scale firings as a way to do it.
Trump tapped Shulkin, the VA's current top health official, to be VA secretary after a presidential campaign in which the Republican billionaire described the agency as "the most corrupt" and "probably the most incompetently run."
But as Shulkin prepares to face a Senate panel Wednesday, the 57-year-old physician is suggesting more modest changes.
"VA is a unique national resource that is worth saving, and I am committed to doing just that," Shulkin said in prepared remarks for the hearing, obtained by The Associated Press. "There will be far greater accountability, dramatically improved access, responsiveness and expanded care options, but the Department of Veterans Affairs will not be privatized under my watch."
Praising the VA workforce, Shulkin called it unfortunate that "a few employees" who didn't follow policies may have tarnished the department's overall reputation. Trump's 10-point plan to fix the VA focuses in part on the firing and disciplining of VA employees, including a commission to investigate wrongdoing and a special 24-hour White House hotline staffed by a live person to register complaints about the VA.
"VA has many dedicated employees across the country, and our veterans tell us that every day," Shulkin said.
Shulkin is in line to be the lone ex-Obama administration official serving in Trump's Cabinet amid a conservative push to privatize several government services and fierce partisan battles over Trump's other Cabinet nominees.
Expected to be approved in the Senate, Shulkin would be the first non-veteran ever to lead the government's second-largest agency.
He is nevertheless expected to be met with tough questioning on the scope of any VA plans to work more closely with the private sector and a persistent backlog in processing disability claims.
"It will be disappointing if Dr. Shulkin defends the status quo — veterans who took President Trump's campaign promises about VA reform seriously will be immediately concerned," said Mark Lucas, executive director of conservative Concerned Veterans for America.
Shulkin is generally supported by the largest veterans' organizations, who have praised steps begun under the Obama administration to address the VA's problems. They oppose greater privatization as a threat to the viability of VA medical centers, which they see as better-suited to treat battlefield injuries such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
As undersecretary of health for the agency, Shulkin currently manages a system responsible for 9 million military veterans in more than 1,700 facilities. He was charged with improving wait times for medical care following the 2014 scandal at the Phoenix VA medical center. Veterans waited months for care even as VA employees created secret waiting lists and other falsehoods to cover up delays.
In his prepared testimony, Shulkin left the door open to closing underused VA facilities and said he would explore "public-private partnerships" to avoid building new medical centers that cost too much or take too long to build — a likely reference to widely reported cost overruns at the VA hospital in Aurora, Colo.
Addressing other issues facing the VA, Shulkin cited Obama administration efforts to combat high rates of suicide by hiring more psychologists and psychiatrists, but did not specify future staffing plans amid Trump's current federal hiring freeze. An estimated 20 veterans take their own lives every day.
"If more funds are necessary, we expect Dr. Shulkin to be an advocate for veterans to get that money," said Bob Wallace, executive director of Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Shulkin spent more than two decades in hospital management. The son of an Army psychiatrist and grandson of a VA pharmacist, he is a former president of the Morristown Medical Center in New Jersey. He also served as president and CEO of the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York and chief medical officer at the University of Pennsylvania Health System and Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia.
The VA has nearly 370,000 employees and an annual budget of nearly $167 billion.
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