President-elect Donald Trump announced Wednesday that he has tapped David Shulkin, a physician who is currently serving in the Obama administration as VA undersecretary, to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The decision ends a protracted search for a head of the second-largest federal agency and would make Shulkin the first VA secretary who had not served in the military. Trump said he and his transition team had interviewed “at least 100 people” in their search for an executive to carry out multiple promises he has made to improve the care of veterans. In the end, they looked inside.
Shulkin, 57, who would be the first Obama administration holdover for Trump, was confirmed unanimously for his post as undersecretary in charge of the Veterans Health Administration in June 2015, a sign he could breeze through the Senate confirmation process.
“I have no doubt Dr. Shulkin will be able to lead the turnaround our Department of Veterans Affairs needs,” Trump said at his first news conference since his election, calling him an “incredibly gifted doctor.”
“His sole mandate will be to serve our veterans and restore the level of care we owe to our brave men and women in the military,” Trump said. “Sadly our great veterans have not gotten the level of care they deserve, but Dr. Shulkin has the experience and the vision to ensure we will meet the health-care needs of every veteran.”
Shulkin is an internist who came to government with 30 years’ experience leading private hospitals. He has led the sprawling veterans health system — the country’s largest, with 1,700 clinics and hospitals — for 18 months, working to improve patients’ access to care after a nationwide scandal over fudged wait lists for medical appointments.
During his campaign, Trump called VA a “broken” system that treats illegal immigrants “better than our vets.”
Shulkin is in line to run an agency beset by challenges, including a backlog in disability claims that has shifted in recent years from initial applications to appeals; a rising suicide rate; overuse of opiates; and a shortage of doctors and nurses.
“We are both eager to begin reforming the areas in our Veterans Affairs system that need critical attention, and do it in a swift, thoughtful and responsible way,” Shulkin said in a statement released by the transition team.
In keeping Shulkin, Trump passed over the current secretary, Robert McDonald, a Republican appointed by Obama in 2014 after the wait-times scandal forced out his first VA chief, retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki. Washington’s large and influential veterans service organizations had pushed Trump unsuccessfully to keep McDonald in the job.
Trump also passed over a favorite of some of his top aides, Fox News Channel contributor and Iraq War veteran Pete Hegseth. Hegseth is a former president and chief executive of Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative group backed by the billionaire Koch brothers. Hegseth had pledged to make it easier to fire poor performers and significantly expand VA medical care to private doctors outside the system. But he had not run a large organization comparable to the veterans system.
Expanding private care is one of Trump’s biggest priorities for veterans, and it is unclear how Shulkin would approach such a change. After some members of the congressionally created commission on VA health care called last year for drastically reducing the federal role in veterans’ medical care, Shulkin told the Daily Press in Virginia the idea was “terrible.”
“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,” he said.
A specialist in health-care quality, Shulkin held leadership positions at the Drexel University College of Medicine, Temple University Hospital and the Medical College of Pennsylvania before coming to government. He founded a now-defunct company, DoctorQuality, that provided information for patients on health-care safety and quality.
He received his medical degree from the Medical College of Pennsylvania, completed his internship at Yale School of Medicine and his residency and fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh Presbyterian Medical Center.
His selection drew praise from some of the largest veterans groups as a welcome sign of continuity.
“The VFW is proud to support the nomination of Dr. David Shulkin as the next Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and we are most appreciative of his willingness to continue serving veterans and making the VA better,” Brian Duffy, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said in a statement.
Mark Lucas, executive director of Concerned Veterans for America, said in a statement: “It is no secret that the VA has been failing veterans for years. While Shulkin already holds a leadership position at the VA, as Secretary, he will now have ultimate responsibility over the agency and we are hopeful he will take it in a new direction.”
Louis Celli, legislative director for the American Legion, said in an interview that Shulkin has had an open door not just to veterans groups but to his staff at the Veterans Health Administration.
Shulkin’s selection “says to me that Trump has faith in the direction VA is going with health care,” Celli said. “I think this is a huge reality check for a group of people who want to privatize VA.”
Of all the day-to-day operations of government that Trump criticized, VA, with its vast management challenges, came under special scrutiny. Finding the right person for the job was one of the president-elect’s biggest challenges.
In recent weeks, Trump had met with retired military leaders, politicians and health-care executives, some of whom would help diversify a Cabinet he is under pressure from some on his team to make more inclusive. Trump extended preliminary offers to several qualified contenders, but they turned him down, citing other commitments.