What has the new Veterans Affairs Secretary been up to?
Unlike many of President Donald Trump’s top agency nominations, David Shulkin sailed through his Senate confirmation with an 100-0 vote to become the next Veterans Affairs Secretary.
Shulkin stands out from his predecessors in that he is the first VA Secretary to not be a veteran himself. However he was born on an Army base, and his family has a history of military service and military medical care.
He’s also no stranger to the VA system, as he had previously been undersecretary for health for the Department of Veterans Affairs under the Obama Administration since June 2015. In that post he was responsible for nearly 8.8 million veterans’ health care and oversaw 168 medical centers and 1,600 clinics.
Prior to his nomination as Secretary, Shulkin had been outspoken about how he’d like to see the VA system improved–and how it had already improved under his leadership as undersecretary. After documents detailing the VA’s internal ratings of its medical centers was made public in December of last year, Shulkin cautioned against reading too much into the lower ratings, claiming that 120 of the 146 medical centers rated by the VA have shown improvement since he started overseeing the Veterans Health Administration.
Despite ongoing problems at many VA medical centers, Shulkin has resisted calls to move veterans care to the private sector. He says the VA’s model of care is important and effective because it “treats the physical along with the psychological, the social and the economic aspects of health, all of which contribute to the well-being of the patient.” He has touted a recent decrease in the number of veterans waiting more than a month for urgent care from 57,000 to 600. And he has said that suicide prevention should be a top priority for the VA.
Shulkin has been busy working on reforms during his first month as Secretary. He has said he agrees with President Trump that veterans deserved a much higher degree of accountability from the VA and pledged to seek greater accountability for VA staff going forward.
As far as specific policy changes go, Shulkin has proposed eliminating the 40-mile, 30-day rule to give veterans a system of less red-tape that would make it easier for them to receive private-sector health care. He has sworn off internally developed software products at the VA in favor of using proven commercial software for health records, scheduling, and other VA business practices. And he has started working on a plan to provide mental health treatment for veterans who would otherwise be disqualified for treatment due to an other-than-honorable discharge.