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VA's Top Doctor Nominee Lists Mental Health as Leading Priority

Dr. David Shulkin. Andy Kropa/AP
Dr. David Shulkin. Andy Kropa/AP

A physician executive nominated to take over as the Department of Veterans Affairs' top doctor told Congress on Tuesday that the current veteran suicide rate "is something that none of us can be satisfied with."

Dr. David J. Shulkin listed mental health care of veterans as a top priority as he fielded questions from the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee during his nomination hearing.

Shulkin was in the running for this position five years ago but opted instead to head up a medical center, children's hospital and rehabilitation institute in New Jersey.

"But then I watched over the past year ... as this [VA wait  times] crisis unfolded, and it was hard for me to sit on the sidelines , and I said at that time I really need to be able to do anything I can to see if I can contribute," Shulkin said.

Shulkin has not served in the military, but he was born on an Army base where his father, an Army captain and psychiatrist, cared for soldiers. He said he and his wife both spent a great deal of time at veterans' hospitals while in medical school.

"We believe in giving back to those who served," he said.

Shulkin told the lawmakers that mental health care of veterans would be one of his top priorities.

He said the average suicide rate of 22 veterans per day "is something that none of us can be satisfied with."

"I do believe this has to be a priority. And I think there are several areas ... that are a priority," he said. "Surveillance, so that we know how big the problem is, identification of risk factors, particularly for suicide, and then the multiple interventions required for treatment of mental health."

He said another priority of his was improving veterans' access to health care.

"This is what I've been doing throughout my career," he said. "This is operations, this is being able to expand capacity, being able to use weekend and evening hours ... and I know how to deal with those issues."

If Shulkin is ultimately confirmed by the full Senate, he will be the first permanent under secretary for health at VA since Dr. Robert Petzel -- who got the job five years ago -- resigned following the discovery that VA managers had manipulated wait times schedules for health care.

President Obama nominated Shulkin for the post in March.

Shulkin has served as president at Morristown Medical Center, Goryeb Children's Hospital, and Atlantic Rehabilitation Institute -- all part of Atlantic Health System -- since 2010.

Shulkin also is president of Atlantic Accountable Care Organization, one of the largest Medicare-approved ACOs in the country. In addition, he is president of Primary Care Partners LLC and principal shareholder in Practice Associations, two physician organizations made up of more than 400 Atlantic Health providers.

He has not given any interviews since he was nominated, but in recent weeks he has been meeting with lawmakers, VA officials and officials from veterans' service organizations.

Rich Umbdenstock, president and chief executive officer of the American Hospital Association, said Shulkin's background as both a physician and as a health system leader makes him a good choice for the job, and that the organization strongly backs his nomination.

"Dr. Shulkin is passionate about patient safety and quality and has dedicated his career to providing the right care at the right time to patients," Umbdenstock said in a statement in March, when President Obama first announced the nomination. "His deep knowledge and experience in running complex organizations coupled with his clinical background will serve America's veterans well."

Shulkin was named to Modern Health Care magazine's list of the country's 50 most influential physician executives for 2008 and 2009.

If he is confirmed, Shulkin would assume the job from Dr. Carolyn Clancy, who was named interim under secretary for health in July 2014. Clancy made the same Top 50 list as Shulkin in 2008 and 2009, rated No. 1 in 2009.

She was named interim under secretary about one month after then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki accepted Petzel's resignation on May 16, 2014.

Petzel had already put in for retirement, but Shinseki forced him out immediately in the wake of the wait times scandal. Shinseki would submit his own resignation to the White House two weeks later.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com.

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