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February 14, 2017

Senate confirms Shulkin as VA secretary

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The Senate on Monday unanimously confirmed David Shulkin to lead Veterans Affairs (VA). 

Shulkin, a physician, is the first non-veteran to head VA. As VA secretary, Shulkin will be responsible for the second-largest federal agency in the United States, which includes health care, benefits delivery, and other support programs. Shulkin will oversee 350,000 employees and almost 2,000 VA clinics and medical centers, the Washington Post reports.

Background on Shulkin

Before his confirmation, Shulkin served as VA's undersecretary for health—a position he held since June 2015. As undersecretary for health, Shulkin directed the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), which oversees the care of about nine million veterans at nearly 1,000 VA clinics nationwide. Shulkin took over VHA following a scandal that emerged in 2014 over long wait times for veterans seeking health care and subsequent cover-up efforts.

The wait time scandal, a growing backlog of disability claims appeals, and more recent provider shortages at VA have prompted debate over privatizing VA health care. Some veterans groups strongly oppose privatization, arguing that VA is uniquely qualified to handle veterans' health care. 
During his confirmation hearings, Shulkin vowed to reform VA's health care system without privatizing it. "There should be no doubt that if confirmed as secretary, I will seek major reform and a transformation of VA. But [VA] will not be privatized under my watch," he said.

Vote details

The Senate voted on Shulkin's nomination after 10 minutes of debate, during which several senators praised Shulkin.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said, "Although progress has been made in recent years there are still changes at the VA we need to address." He continued, "I look forward to working with Shulkin on these matters," adding, "I believe he's the right person to head the VA today."

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) recalled a town hall meeting Shulkin attended in Maine, saying, "I was impressed and remain truly impressed with Shulkin's understanding of the needs of rural veterans [and] the challenges of providing health care in rural settings," adding, "Shulkin is an excellent nomination."

Veterans groups react

Veterans service organizations also supported Shulkin's confirmation.
Veterans of Foreign Wars National Commander Brian Duffy in a statement said, "Veterans are very fortunate to have [Shulkin] voluntarily stay in what has evolved into the most scrutinized and criticized position in the country."

Concerned Veterans for America
(CVA), which has supported efforts to privatize VA, said it was "encouraged" by Shulkin's comments to reform and transform VA. CVA Policy Director Dan Caldwell in a statement said, "We look forward to partnering with [Shulkin] to bring real accountability to [VA] and empower veterans who wish to use their benefits to access care in the private sector." The group added, "We remain optimistic that [Shulkin] will embrace the bold reforms President Trump laid out on the campaign trail, so that American veterans will begin to see a more transparent, efficient, and customer-focused VA" (Carney, The Hill, 2/13; Slack, USA Today, 2/13; Rein, Washington Post, 2/13; Peterson/Kesling, Wall Street Journal, 2/13; O'Brien, Politico, 2/13).

You've filled the position. Now what?

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