Shulkin confirmed to lead Dept. of Veterans Affairs

Shulkin confirmed to lead Dept. of Veterans Affairs
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The Senate unanimously confirmed David Shulkin to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs Monday evening, capping off a relatively drama-free confirmation for the Obama-era official. 

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Senators praised Shulkin from the Senate floor ahead of the vote.

"Although progress has been made in recent years there are still changes at the VA we need to address. … I look forward to working with Dr. Shulkin on these matters," Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinManchin: Negotiators to miss Friday target for deal on reconciliation bill Democrats look for plan B on filibuster The Memo: Cuts to big bill vex Democrats MORE (D-Ill.)—the No. 2 Senate Democrat said.

“I believe he’s the right person to head the VA today.”

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Biden makes his pitch as tax questions mount Emanuel defends handling of Chicago police shooting amid opposition to nomination Emanuel to take hot seat in Senate confirmation hearing MORE (R-Maine) boasted about a trip Shulkin made to Maine, noting he had had a town meeting with constituents in her state.

“I was impressed and remain truly impressed with Dr. Shulkin’s understanding of the needs of rural veterans of the challenges of providing healthcare in rural settings,” she said. “Dr. Shulkin is an excellent nomination.”

In a sign of how uncontroversial his nomination is considered, senators agreed to vote after only 10 minutes of debate, following a week of Democratic all-night talk-a-thons against some of Trump’s more controversial nominees.

Shulkin cruised through his confirmation hearing, where he touched on the department’s backlog of benefits appeals and holding VA employee accountable.

Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Manchin, Sanders in budget feud; Biden still upbeat Democratic frustration with Sinema rises Which proposals will survive in the Democrats' spending plan? MORE (D-Mont.)–the top Democrat on the committee—pointed to the committee’s unanimous vote for Shulkin as a sign of the level of support he expected to see before the full Senate.

Schulkin pledged that he would not privatize the VA—a move that would draw quick backlash from Democrats.

Shulkin told lawmakers during the hearing that as the under secretary of health he has advocated for more cooperation between private-sector healthcare and the VA and would try to build an “integrated system” as secretary.

“But, veterans still tell us that even with the ability to seek care in the community, they want VA services,” he added.

The VA has been under Congress’s spotlight since a 2014 scandal that found VA clinics across the country where manipulating data to downplay how long a veteran had been waiting for a healthcare appointment.

The scandal toppled then-Secretary Eric ShinsekiEric Ken ShinsekiFormer VA secretaries propose National Warrior Call Day to raise military suicide awareness Why aren't more Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Biden's Cabinet? Biden VA pick faces 'steep learning curve' at massive agency MORE, who stepped down amid widespread criticism in May 2014.

Congress also passed legislation overhauling the VA’s healthcare system, but Republicans have remained critical of a bureaucracy that they believe takes too long, or fails, to punish employees who break the rules.

As VA secretary, he would be responsible for the entire $177 billion agency, from healthcare to benefits delivery and other support programs.

Shulkin said during his confirmation hearing that if he isn’t able to implement changes at the department, lawmakers should be prepared to ask him to step down.

"I am going to be serious about making these changes and regaining that trust, and if I don't do it, I should be held accountable, and you should replace me," he said.

He also pledged to work with Congress and to extend and reform the VA’s Choice Card program—which grew out of the 2014 legislation and allows some veterans to seek private care if they face a long wait time or don’t live near a VA facility.

Shulkin will be the first VA secretary who is not a veteran.

He was nominated by Obama in 2015 for his current post after Robert Petzel resigned as the under secretary of health because of the wait times scandal.