VA nominee cruises through confirmation hearing


President Trump’s choice to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, David Shulkin, sailed through a confirmation hearing Wednesday that ended with a smattering of applause from some in attendance and that touched on veterans’ choices to seek private care, the backlog of benefits appeals and accountability of VA employees, among other topics.

Shulkin, currently the VA’s undersecretary of health, set the stage off the bat, firmly stating in his opening statement what many veterans groups had wanted to hear — that he would not privatize the VA if confirmed.

“The Department of Veterans Affairs will not be privatized under my watch,” Shulkin told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

{mosads}Still, he pledged change despite being a holdover from the Obama administration.

“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.

Many veterans had worried Trump would put the VA on the path to privatization based on statements made during the campaign and transition about allowing veterans to visit private-sector doctors rather than VA doctors and having some form of a “public-private option.”

Most veterans groups have blasted such plans as amounting to privatization, saying they would undermine the VA by shifting resources away from it.

Asked again throughout the hearing about the issue, Shulkin reiterated that he is opposed to privatization.

“What I told [Trump] is, is that I’m a strong advocate for the VA, that the services that are available at the VA are not available in the private sector, and that 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,” he said.

Currently, some veterans facing a long wait time or far distance to a VA facility can seek private care under the Choice Card program approved by Congress in 2014.

Senator Jon Tester (D-Mont.), the ranking member of the committee, sought to drill down on when Shulkin believes a veteran should be allowed to seek private care, asking if he would allow it for a veteran who comes to the VA with a cold or the flu and can’t be seen that day.

Shulkin said he would not have based the Choice program on mileage and wait time and instead would base it on clinical need, such as whether there is an urgent care need.

“For somebody who needs to see a doctor that day, they should be seen,” Shulkin said. “If they can’t be seen at VA, they should be seen in their community.”

Tester later sought for Shulkin to answer for Trump’s comments during the campaign about the VA being a “disaster” and “the most corrupt agency in the United States.”

Shulkin dodged, saying he hadn’t talked to Trump about his campaign comments, but that two agree the VA needs to do better.

Shulkin also pledged to work with Congress to fix the benefits appeals process. The average appeal lasts six years, with one going on more than 30 years, he said. That’s because any time new evidence is added, the process starts from scratch.

“The appeals process is broken,” Shulkin said, in response to Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska). “The system was designed in 1933 and every now and then you have to update it, and we’re way past that. So we need an appeals modernization act.”

“We will not fix this problem without legislation,” he added later.

Asked by Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) about how to hold employees accused of wrongdoing accountable, Shulkin said the department’s personnel problems are actually twofold: He needs to be able to retain and recruit the best employees and be able to let go the ones that fail.

“A basic function of any chief executive is to be able to get the right people working in the organization and those that do stray from the value that we hold have to leave the organization,” he said. “We don’t currently have that right on either side, so I see this as a dual-pronged process.

On being able to fire people accused of wrongdoing, Shulkin highlighted that a court ruled a law passed by Congress to give the secretary streamlined abilities to do so was ruled unconstitutional and that the Justice Department decided not to appeal. As such, he pledged to find a constitutional way to hold employees accountable.

“Fortunately, the vast majority of our employees are people that we’re all proud with,” he said. “I’m proud to work with them. I’m going to stand behind them as secretary and I want the tool that we can make sure we have the very best people in this country serving our veterans.”

Tags John Boozman Jon Tester
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