Can President Trump Finally End the VA Scandal?

By Curtis Kalin

January 2017 WasteWatcher

As the nation prepares for the transfer of power from the Obama administration to the Trump administration, the issue of veteran healthcare and the insidious and continuing wait-times scandal remains a critical area of concern.

During the campaign, President Trump routinely invoked poor care at Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals as a national shame, calling the agency a, “disaster" and the “most incompetently run agency in the United States.”  His campaign website promised, “No more waiting backlogs,” and proposed several positive steps to increase efficiency and management at the VA.  For example, Trump would push for legislation to allow the VA to swiftly discipline wrongdoing, create a commission to thoroughly investigate agency misconduct, and cease giving bonuses to employees that engage in waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement. 

A December 28, 2016 New York Times article signaled that Trump was, “considering a plan to allow military veterans to opt out of medical care at Veterans Affairs hospitals and instead see private doctors of their choosing.”  Contrary to claims by former President Obama and others, this would not “outsource” VA care, it would give veterans the opportunity to choose the finest, timeliest, and most effective care that is available.

Given the many problems at the VA, it was a surprise to many when President-elect Trump announced on January 11, 2017 that he was nominating VA Undersecretary of Health and head of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) David Shulkin to be the next secretary.  Shulkin possesses a mixed record on VA reform.  He was nominated to that post by Obama in 2015 and has publicly “resisted calls for privatizing the federal system.”  A January 5, 2017 VA Office of Inspector General’s report found that Shulkin’s VHA failed to seek repayment for over half of its recruiting, relocation and retention compensation in fiscal year 2014, an oversight that cost $784,000. 

Shulkin himself was caught giving false information to the House Veterans Affairs Committee on April 19, 2016.  Shulkin told the committee that a Puerto Rico VA facility had fired an employee who was arrested for armed robbery, only to have then-Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) later expose the fact that the employee was, in fact, still employed by the VA.

While many red flags exist, Shulkin has gotten positive reviews, as well.  Phil Carter, director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security endorsed Shulkin, in part, due to his work to “slowly and quietly shift more of its patient load to the private sector, and that has helped VA handle much greater demand.”  A January 14, 2017 article in The Hill lauded Shulkin as a “turnaround artist,” citing his “long history in the private sector turning around struggling hospitals.” 

During his tenure as president of Morristown Medical Center in New Jersey, the facility was named the safest hospital in the state by Consumer Reports.  And Fortune dubbed it one of the 100 best places to work in America in 2016, a stark contrast to the VA, which was named by federal employees in December 2015 as the second-worst place to work in the federal government.

Shulkin also drew praise from House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), who was encouraged that the next secretary was “familiar with the integrating of private practitioners into the VA's network of health care providers.”

Veterans and taxpayers are right to be wary of a VA secretary who has roots in the troubled agency during a former administration that was quick with promises and slow to reform.  However, turning around the VA will be far more difficult than fixing a single hospital. 

In that spirit, it may be fair to give Dr. Shulkin an adjustment period following his confirmation. However, veterans and taxpayer watchdogs must be vigilant and hold him accountable in short order.  The waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement at the VA must end as soon as possible, regardless of who is in charge of the agency.

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