Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin on Friday promised major changes were coming to the agency, saying President Donald Trump expects it. “We’re going to be looking for some major changes, to really reevaluate how we do things,” Shulkin said during a live, online question-and-answer podcast with veterans. “If you look at the president’s 10-point plan, he’s not looking for minor changes. The reason why I feel I got a 100-0 [confirmation] vote from the Senate is because there’s one thing the country agrees on -- that our vets deserve better than what they’re getting now.” However, he did not offer veterans specifics about how he would change the department, only calling it a “modernizing of our system.”
Part of the change will include the Veterans Choice Program, which Shulkin said he wanted to “redesign” this year. The program allows some veterans to receive care in the private sector with the VA paying the bill, but many veterans have criticized it as complex and confusing. The Veterans Choice Program is set to expire in August. Shulkin said Friday he’s working with Trump and lawmakers to propose changes to the program, though no details were offered. He’s previously deflected claims of “privatization.”
In Trump’s 10-point plan for VA reform, which was introduced during his campaign, the president said he wanted to allow all veterans the option to seek care in the private sector. Some veterans organizations have voiced concerns and contend paying more for veterans to seek outside care could diminish resources at VA facilities.
Donald J. Trump’s 10 Point Plan to Reform The Department of Veterans Affairs
1. Appoint a VA Secretary whose sole purpose will be to serve veterans. Under a Trump Administration, the needs of D.C. bureaucrats will no longer be placed above those of our veterans.
2. Use the powers of the presidency to remove and discipline the federal employees and managers who have violated the public’s trust and failed to carry out the duties on behalf of our veterans.
3. Ask that Congress pass legislation that empowers the Secretary of the VA to discipline or terminate any employee who has jeopardized the health, safety or well-being of a veteran.
4. Create a commission to investigate all the fraud, cover-ups, and wrong-doing that has taken place in the VA, and present these findings to Congress to spur legislative reform.
5. Protect and promote honest employees at the VA who highlight wrongdoing, and guarantee their jobs will be protected.
6. Create a private White House hotline, which will be active 24 hours a day answered by a real person. It will be devoted to answering veteran’s complaints of wrongdoing at the VA and ensure no complaints fall through the cracks.
7. Stop giving bonuses to any VA employees who are wasting money, and start rewarding employees who seek to improve the VA’s service, cut waste, and save lives.
8. Reform the visa system to ensure veterans are at the front of the line for health services, not the back.
9. Increase the number of mental health care professionals, and allow veteran’s to be able to seek mental health care outside of the VA.
10. Ensure every veteran has the choice to seek care at the VA or at a private service provider of their own choice. Under a Trump Administration, no veteran will die waiting for service.
Scott Blackburn, who was named Friday as Shulkin’s acting deputy secretary, said the VA would “buckle down” and “get more disciplined.” Blackburn previously led former VA Secretary Bob McDonald’s VA transformation initiative, “MyVA.” “The president wants to do some really big things,” Blackburn said Friday. “We still have a long way to go.”
Shulkin, who previously worked as VA undersecretary of health under McDonald, was confirmed Feb. 13 as the new VA secretary. The town hall-style event Friday was the first time that Shulkin spoke publicly to veterans as VA secretary. He said he would do more online town halls in the future if veterans requested them. On Sunday, Shulkin will address members of Disabled American Veterans at the organization’s winter conference in Arlington, Va.
Besides promising major changes, Shulkin on Friday condemned the “berating” of the VA by public officials and the media. He first mentioned the issue during a VA podcast released Friday morning and reiterated his feelings during the town hall event in the afternoon. “I think that it’s time to stop beating us up,” Shulkin said. “I’m disappointed there seems to be an obsession with finding our failings.”
That runs contrary to how Trump has spoken about the VA, which he has called “the most corrupt agency” and “probably the most incompetently run agency” in the government. “The constant berating that the VA is filled with unethical people is really painting a picture that is… a disservice to our veterans, because it breaks down their confidence in the system,” Shulkin said. “I worry there are people who need help but don’t come to us because they hear this narrative.”
During Shulkin’s confirmation hearing Feb. 1, Republican and Democratic senators also said they thought there were “good stories” at the VA, and that the agency was being unfairly criticized in some instances. Shulkin, who is a physician, also said Friday he would continue a practice that he started as undersecretary for health and find time to treat VA patients. On Monday, he saw patients on physician rounds in the VA’s New York Harbor Healthcare System.
“I think it’s important for me to make sure I stay connected with the services we deliver,” Shulkin said during the podcast. “I get tremendous value from actually being able to take care of vets and hear from them and work with staff.”
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