VA will not be privatized “under my watch,” says nominee Shulkin

VA will not be privatized “under my watch,” says nominee Shulkin

Dr. David Shulkin testifies before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on Wednesday. Shulkin has been nominated to serve as the next VA secretary. (Photo: Mike Morones/MOAA)

By Gina Harkins, senior staff writer

The president's pick to run the VA has plans to majorly reform the department if he's confirmed for the job, but that won't include a move toward privatized care.

Dr. David Shulkin said during his nomination hearing Wednesday, Feb. 1, that he and President Donald Trump agree that the U.S. has “to do a lot better for our veterans.”

“There will be far greater accountability, dramatically improved access, responsiveness, and expanded care options,” Shulkin told members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

“If confirmed, I intend to build a system that puts veterans first and allows them to get the best possible health care wherever it may be - in VA or with community care.”

While Trump has hinted at plans to privatize the massive department that serves millions of veterans each year, Shulkin said that won't happen “under my watch.” He also said he made no promises to Trump about how he'd lead the VA.

“What I told him is that I'm a strong advocate for the VA, that the services available in VA are not available in the private sector,” he said. “My view of where VA needs to go is an integrated system of care - taking the best of VA and the best of the community, and that's what I would work toward.”

Rebuilding trust

Shulkin, currently the VA's under secretary for health, could become the first non-veteran to lead the department. The former physician has served as a top administrator in some of the country's largest hospitals. He's the only nominee to serve in Trump's Cabinet who had served under President Barack Obama, and his nomination appears to have bipartisan support.  

Still, Shulkin faced tough questions from lawmakers about his plans to improve the department after several high-profile reports about long wait times and subpar care at VA centers.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) shared concerns from one of his constituents: a Marine Vietnam veteran with six Purple Hearts and a Silver Star who goes by the name “Cajun Bob.”

“['Cajun Bob'] indicated a deep distrust in the VA,” Sullivan said. “He's nervous that your appointment as secretary is going to be 'more of the same,' because as you know, there have been promises and promises - generations of promises.”

“Cajun Bob,” Sullivan added, is concerned that employees at the VA aren't held accountable and that the department works against them instead of for them. The Marine vet wants someone at the VA who will “kick a-- and take names” Sullivan said.

Shulkin replied that next time he's in Alaska, he'd like to meet with “Cajun Bob” to find out what the VA can do better. He acknowledged that trust in the department has been eroded since the April 2014 wait-time crisis, and he said he'll work hard to earn it back.

“I am going to be serious about making these changes and regaining this trust,” Shulkin said. “And if I don't do it, I should be held accountable, and you should replace me.”

Despite some missteps, Shulkin stressed that the majority of VA employees are incredibly hardworking people who care a great deal for veterans. He shared an example from a recent trip to a VA hospital in St. Louis, where a veteran drove three hours to get to an appointment only to have it postponed. He missed his bus home, and when a VA employee saw him sitting in the lobby, she asked him why he was still there.

When the patient explained he had missed his bus and had nowhere to stay in St. Louis, the employee told him she'd drive him home despite it being a three-hour trip.

“These are our employees,” he said. “These are the people you don't hear about. They're there not for the money, despite the bad press. They're there because they're passionate about helping veterans.”

Shulkin Hearing 2

Dr. David Shulkin, the nominee to be secretary of Veterans Affairs, applauds as veterans stand
during his Wednesday confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Mike Morones/MOAA)

Improving the system

Shulkin pledged to improve two key administrative procedures that have long left veterans frustrated: the process for appeals and scheduling appointments.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) called the need for appeals reform “extraordinarily necessary,” as too many veterans face lengthy backlogs when trying to get their claims reviewed.

Shulkin agreed, calling on Congress to introduce an appeals modernization act. The VA has one appeal that has been outstanding for more than 30 years, he said.

“The appeals process is broken,” he said. “The system was designed in 1933, and every now and then you need to update it, and we're way past that. …We will not fix this problem without legislation to fix it.”

As for scheduling veterans' medical appointments, Shulkin said VA employees don't have the right tools to do their jobs well because they've been forced to use an outdated system. The VA is moving forward with a new commercial scheduling program, he said. So far, 10 sites have tested the new technology, and department officials plan to make a decision on full implementation over the next week.

“We need a new scheduling system, we've known that for years,” Shulkin said. “We're finally going to do it.”

When it comes to making some of these improvements, Shulkin said he'll continue to listen to veterans service organizations, which he called a “treasured resources to me as a voice for veterans.”

“I consider my relationships with them absolutely critical to the success of what I currently do, and certainly critical to the success of a secretary,” Shulkin said. “That commitment is absolutely there. And if we need to do more than what we're doing, then we'll do it.”

Members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee plan to vote on Shulkin's nomination by Feb. 10. Once the committee confirms the nomination, Shulkin will face a full vote in the Senate.

Gina Harkins can be reached at ginah@moaa.org. Follow her on Twitter: @ginaaharkins.

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