President-elect Donald Trump said Wednesday he will tap David J. Shulkin, who is now head of the Veterans Health Administration, to be secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The president-elect said “at least” 100 interviews were conducted for the top job to lead the troubled agency that has struggled to deliver care to veterans at a time of increased demand and budgetary pressure.
Trump said Shulkin, who is also under secretary for health, “will do a truly great job.” Trump stumped hard on the campaign trail for veterans, promising expanded access to private health care, and continued to do so on his thank-you tour across the country in December. Budget hawks have raised concerns about his health care ideas, citing a substantial cost.
The long-anticipated announcement ends weeks of speculation over Trump’s choice to lead the VA. Names that were floated included former Alaska Gov. and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, U.S. Navy Admiral Michelle Howard, Cleveland Clinic President and Chief Executive Toby Cosgrove and Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran and Fox News commentator Pete Hegseth.
“Our veterans have been treated horribly, they’re waiting in line for 15, 16, 17 days … it’s not going to happen, so David is going to do a fantastic job,” Trump said.
If Shulkin is confirmed by the Senate, it keeps in place a power structure that many veterans’ service organizations and current VA Secretary Robert McDonald urged Trump to not dramatically change.
The VA faces tough challenges. McDonald has embarked on a broad overhaul of the agency amid intense congressional pressure, oversight and legal requirements in recent legislation. Changes were spurred in part by a 2014 law that was passed to help ease patient wait-time backlogs in the wake of a nationwide scandal regarding the issue.
News investigations found employees were placing veterans on wait lists outside the agency’s scheduling systems, which government investigations later confirmed led to veterans’ deaths.
Trump’s 10-point veterans’ campaign plan listed its first order of business as “appoint a VA Secretary whose sole purpose will be to serve veterans.”
He also wants to create a commission to investigate wrongdoing at the agency, install a private 24-hour-a-day White House hotline to field complaints about the VA manned by live phone operators, increase the number of mental health care professionals, cover non-VA mental health care for veterans, and, most significantly, “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,” the 10th point on the plan reads.
But as of late, the president-elect has divulged little in terms of specifics.
Trump said in Milwaukee, Wis., on Dec. 13 his administration will “take care of our great veterans the way they should have been taken care of for a long time.”
“We are going to finally take care of our veterans. We’re going to take care of them, believe me,” Trump said Dec.15 in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
“We’re going to finally take care of our great, great veterans,” Trump said Dec. 16 in Orlando, Florida.
McDonald said during a public appearance in December that he hoped Trump would at least keep the current VA staff if he axed McDonald from the top spot, which would be expected in a change of administrations.
The president-elect launched criticism against McDonald on Twitter last year after the former Procter and Gamble CEO compared wait times at VA facilities to those at a Disney theme park, an equivocation that led to a flood of criticism and even calls for his resignation by some lawmakers.