Is David Shulkin the best pick for VA Secretary?

During his first press conference since before the election, President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpUSAID administrator tests positive for COVID-19 Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year DOJ appeals ruling preventing it from replacing Trump in E. Jean Carroll defamation lawsuit MORE announced Dr. David Shulkin, current Under Secretary for Health at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), as his choice for Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

As a U.S. Navy veteran, I am relieved that the President-elect finally named his nominee for this incredibly important position. However, most of the veteran community is left wondering: Why David Shulkin?  

Despite signs of irrefutable progress under Secretary Robert McDonald’s leadership, Trump spent months on the campaign trail criticizing the Obama administration for treating our veterans “so badly.”


As recently as a few weeks ago, Trump asserted that the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), which Dr. Shulkin currently leads, was so inept at providing Veterans the care they need, that the only way forward was privatizing significant portions of VA care. This is a curious choice for a number of reasons.

First, David Shulkin is not a veteran. Though there is no requirement that the Secretary of VA must be one, Shulkin would be the first non-veteran to serve as Secretary.

Second, as Under Secretary for Health, Shulkin has been the head of VHA since July of 2015. This essentially means that Trump, while touting that veterans will be a top priority and that VHA is so broken it should be privatized, picks the man who has been ultimately responsible for the success or failure of VHA for the last year and half to lead all of VA.

For instance, just this week the Office of Special Council released its findings — in conjunction with a VA Office of Inspector General Report — about unacceptable wait times still occurring within the Phoenix VA Health Care System.

In early December 2016, USA Today published a story about secret VHA quality ratings. Also in December 2016, a story about VHA staff leaving a veteran’s body in a shower room for nine hours emerged. All of this and more has occurred on David Shulkin watch and been roundly criticized by the right.

This all goes to show that either the President-elect does not understand who he just picked to fix VA, or he has once again done a sudden, unexpected 180-degree shift in his thinking.

At any other time this would have been a non-starter, but in the President-elect’s world, these flip-flops have become the norm.

I hope this is a sign that the President-elect actually heard the message of most of the major Veteran Service Organizations and several veteran advocacy groups who have been emphasizing the progress VA has made under the leadership of current Secretary Bob McDonald and Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson.

If so, the question my fellow veterans and I are left asking is, why not ask Bob McDonald and Sloan Gibson to stay rather than promoting an insider who has been at the helm of the most troubled administration within VA?

Why not instead keep the whole senior team, which includes a CEO who served in the Army, a former banking executive who served in the Army and led the United Service Organizations, a physician, a former journalist married to a Marine, the former CTO of Dell, and others?

Bob McDonald often comments on the fact that he replaced 14 of 17 senior VA leaders in his tenure, so if Trump is finally starting to see the progress being made, why not keep the momentum going with the team making it happen?

Veteran community and members of Congress should now be asking, “What did David Shulkin promise Donald Trump and Reince Priebus in order to get this nomination?”

I myself want to know if he sold out VA to the Concerned Veterans of America, who have launched a Koch brothers-backed effort to turn the VA into an insurance company that simply pays for veterans’ care in the private sector that oftentimes has longer wait times than VA itself.

As recently as this week, Shulkin spoke publicly about the fact that VA has been, albeit imperfectly, leveraging the private health care system since its creation in the 1940s.

If he told Trump that he could “accelerate” this trend, perhaps by consolidating community care programs proposed by Secretary McDonald in October of 2015, then that is acceptable considering the need to continue building the integrated of network that increases access to care. However, if after spending the last year adamantly rejecting that idea, Shulkin has given in to Trump’s belief that privatization is the answer, then we should all be concerned.

Truly, this could go either way. Maybe Shulkin convinced the President-elect that VA has in fact been moving in the right direction under Secretary McDonald and that under his leadership VA will continue to build upon the progress being made.

Or, maybe he made a deal with the devil so he can be the first non-veteran VA Secretary with the distinction of becoming the last VA Secretary ever as the department is slowly ripped apart and sold off the highest bidder. I hope for all of our sakes that it is the former.

Shawn VanDiver is a 12-year Navy veteran and Co-Director of the Truman National Security Project San Diego Chapter. Follow him on Twitter at @ShawnJVanDiver

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