Trump picks Obama nominee for VA secretary

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President-elect Donald Trump on Wednesday announced his selection of an Obama nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

David Shulkin was nominated by President Obama as under secretary of health for the VA in 2015. 

“He’s fantastic,” Trump said of Shulkin. “He will do a truly great job.”

Trump made the announcement during his first press conference since his election, and his transition team released a formal announcement shortly afterward.

“One of the commitments I made is that we’re going to straighten out the whole situation for our veterans,” Trump said Wednesday. “Our veterans have been treated horribly. They’ve been waiting in line for 15, 16, 17 days, cases where they go in an have a minor early stage form of cancer and they can’t see a doctor and by the time they get to the doctor they’re terminal.

{mosads}“Not going to happen. It’s not going to happen.”

In a statement released by Trump’s transition team, Shulkin said both he and Trump are “eager” to reform to the VA in a “swift, thoughtful and responsible way.”

“It is my honor to serve as President-elect Trump’s Secretary of Veterans Affairs,” Shulkin said. “President-elect Trump’s commitment to caring for our veterans is unquestionable, and he is eager to support the best practices for care and provide our Veterans Affairs’ teams with the resources they need to improve health outcomes.”

The position was one of two Cabinet openings that Trump had yet to fill with just a little more than a week to go before his inauguration.

The delay had worried veterans organizations, which were concerned that Trump wouldn’t keep his commitments to veterans made during the campaign.

The VA has been plagued by scandal since 2014, when it was revealed that hospitals were keeping secret waitlists that had veterans waiting for care for inordinate amounts of time.

During the campaign, Trump repeatedly vowed to reform the VA, at one point even promising that he would set up a special White House hotline to personally field complaints about the military healthcare system.

He also released a 10-point plan to “make the VA great again” that includes making it easier to fire VA officials involved in wrongdoing and expanding veterans’ choices to use private healthcare. 

Trump met with a slew of candidates to head the VA, but a couple leading candidates withdrew their names from consideration in the last few weeks.

Prior to Wednesday’s announcement, Pete Hegseth, a Fox News commentator and former head of the conservative advocacy group Concerned Veterans for America, was seen as the leading contender to be VA secretary.

Leading veterans organizations opposed Hegseth, however, saying he supported a plan that would in effect privatize the VA by shifting resources away from the department to allow all veterans to seek private health care.

Dozen of organizations urged Trump to retain current VA Secretary Bob McDonald, saying he has overseen a number of reforms.

As under secretary of health, Shulkin is the chief executive of Veterans Health Administration and oversees 1,700 care sites serving 8.76 million veterans annually.

Prior to joining the VA, Shulkin served in numerous chief executive roles including serving as president at Morristown Medical Center, Goryeb Children’s Hospital and Atlantic Rehabilitation Institute. He also previously served as president and CEO of Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City.

The choice of Shulkin should assuage worries of veterans organizations worried Trump’s reforms would be radical and lead to privatization. Shulkin is not a veteran, however, something veterans groups had recommended. He would be the first non-veteran to lead the department.

Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of American (IAVA), said his group is optimistic about Shulkin and looks forward to hearing about to what extent he and Trump plan to expand privatization, which he said “veterans nationwide continue to overwhelmingly oppose.”

“He is well known to us, a man of character and has been a trusted partner of IAVA at VA,” Rieckhoff said in a statement. “However, his selection is unprecedented. Our membership overwhelmingly supported the selection of a veteran for this critical leadership position. Dr. Shulkin’s service as under secretary is respected by the entire veterans community. He is a committed leader and is our best hope among candidates reported in the media to maintain the momentum created by Secretary McDonald to reform the VA.”

Got Your 6’s executive director, Bill Rausch, said in a statement that his group looks forward to working with Shulkin.

“Although Dr. Shulkin does not have military experience, we have worked with him closely in his current role and have seen first-hand his unwavering commitment to our nation’s veterans,” he said. “VA’s success is our veterans’ success, and we look forward to working with Dr. Shulkin, his staff and the entire Trump administration to ensure that veterans continue to be put first.”

Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said he was pleased with the choice of Shulkin.

“I am pleased President-elect Trump has chosen a physician to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, especially one familiar with the integrating of private practitioners into the VA’s network of health care providers,” he said in a statement. “I’ve long said I would be happy to work with anyone committed to ensuring our heroes have access to the services they have earned, especially quality health care, and I look forward to working with Dr. Shulkin to bring wholesale reform to the Department.”

Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), who was ranking member of the committee last year, called Shulkin the most qualified of Trump’s VA candidates.

“After calling the Department of Veterans Affairs ‘the most corrupt agency in the United States’ on the campaign trail, the President-elect’s decision to retain a current VA leader and Obama-appointee is a notable departure from his inflammatory rhetoric,” Takano said in a statement. “I sincerely hope he will leave his promise to move the VA toward privatization on the campaign trail as well.”

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, congratulated Shulkin and said he understands how to work with Congress for meaningful reform.

“There is a tremendous amount of work to be done – by the VA and by Congress – to change the paradigm at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs,” Isakson said in a statement. “Dr. Shulkin understands the critical importance of working hand-in-hand with Congress on enacting meaningful, bipartisan reforms to help right the ship at the VA. I congratulate Dr. Shulkin on his nomination, and I look forward to chairing his confirmation hearing and discussing our shared priorities to ensure the VA is putting veterans first.”

–This report was updated at 1:09 p.m.

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