New VA Secretary
by Kofi Annan
David Shulkin, who previously served as an undersecretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs, was unanimously confirmed by the Senate this past Monday to lead the agency. The agency has been heavily criticized for poor performance and efficiency for several years. In mid-2016, a commission tasked by Congress with trying to fix the troubled Veterans Health Administration has just concluded a damning report, finding that "many profound deficiencies" at the troubled agency "require urgent reform." The commissioners concluded, "America's veterans deserve a better organized, high-performing health care system." The Congressional commission was established after watchdog reports revealed VA staffers manipulated data to hide systemic health care delays.
The question now is can someone who has been part of the leadership structure all along be relied on to generate the new ideas needed to turn things around. At a time when many of Trump’s cabinet appointments are struggling to receive Senate confirmation, Shulkin was by far the easiest breezing through with all 100 senators voting yea.
Shulkin does enter the office with a lot of good things going for him. In addition to his previous experience serving as undersecretary, he was the president at Morristown Medical Center in New Jersey from 2010 to 2015. He also served in several chief executive roles at the Atlantic Rehabilitation Institute, the Goryeb Children's Hospital, and the Atlantic Health System Accountable Care Organization. Shulkin also served as the president and CEO of Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City from 2005 to 2009.
Even though he is not a veteran, his family has a history of military service and providing military medical care. He himself was born on an Army base. His father was an Army captain and a psychiatrist, and his both of his grandfathers served in World War I.
One of the critical questions facing the VA is whether privatizing the hospitals would improve their performance. Shulkin indicated that he would not go in that direction, "This would be a terrible mistake, a terrible direction for veterans and for the country, to essentially systematically implement recommendations that would lead to the end of the VA health care system." Even though Shulkin has nearly doubled the amount of health care that veterans receive through private doctors, he rejects calls for broader privatization.
Perhaps the biggest criticism aimed at the VA is the extremely long wait times veterans face when trying to make appointments. In a December interview with USA Today, Shulkin touted that the number of veterans waiting over a month for urgent care was dramatically decreased from 57,000 to 600 since he took office. Let’s hope the trend continues.