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Trump Taps VA Undersecretary to Take Over Top Job

Dr. David Shulkin. Official Department of Veterans Affairs photo
Dr. David Shulkin. Official Department of Veterans Affairs photo

President-elect Donald Trump on Wednesday announced he will nominate Dr. David Shulkin, the undersecretary for health at the Veterans Affairs Department, to take over the top job at the agency.

Trump made the surprise announcement during a press conference in New York. "He's fantastic," the president-elect said. "He will do a truly great job."

If Shulkin is confirmed, he would be the first VA secretary without prior military service and Trump's first cabinet member who served in the Obama administration. With its roughly $180 billion budget, the VA is the second-largest federal agency behind the Defense Department.

In a statement released by Trump's transition team, Shulkin said he was honored to be nominated.

"President-elect Trump's commitment to caring for our veterans is unquestionable, and he is eager to support the best practices for care and provide our Veterans Affairs' teams with the resources they need to improve health outcomes," he said. "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."

Many veterans groups, including the Disabled American Veterans, had pushed for Trump to keep current VA Secretary Robert McDonald on the job, but the president-elect signaled he wanted someone else to reform the agency in part by giving vets more access to private care. Trump raised the issue frequently during his campaign.

A selection for the post, expected last month, was delayed after the two frontrunners -- Dr. Delos "Toby" Cosgrove, an Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam and president and CEO of the Cleveland Clinic, and Luis Quinonez, an Army veteran of Vietnam and founder of IQ Management Services -- dropped out of consideration.

Yet during the press conference on Wednesday, Trump indicated Cosgrove will continue to work with his administration. The president-elect also said Ike Perlmutter, the billionaire chief executive officer of Marvel Entertainment, will also be involved in veterans policy. He suggested the transition team interviewed "at least 100 people" for the VA secretary job.

"We're going to straighten out the whole situation for our veterans," Trump said, according to a transcript of his remarks. "Our veterans have been treated horribly. They're waiting in line for 15, 16, 17 days. Cases where they go on in and they have a minor early-stage form of cancer. They can't see a doctor; by the time they get to the doctor, they're terminal. It's not going to happen, it's not going to happen."

A physician who has advocated for more mental health services for vets, Shulkin was confirmed for his current position in 2015. In that role, he serves as the VA's top doctor and oversees the Veterans Health Administration, a health care system that covers nearly nine million veterans across more than 1,700 sites.

Shulkin was in the running for the undersecretary position several years earlier but opted instead to head up the Morristown Medical Center, Goryeb Children's Hospital, Atlantic Rehabilitation Institute in New Jersey. He was spurred to take the job at the VA after reports surfaced that veterans were dying while waiting for care.

"I watched over the past year ... as this 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 during his 2015 confirmation hearing.

Shulkin has also served as president and chief executive officer of Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, according to his VA bio. He received his medical degree from the Medical College of Pennsylvania, and completed his internship at Yale University School of Medicine, and residency and fellowship in general medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Presbyterian Medical Center, it states.

Rep. Mark Takano, a Democrat from California and the ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, welcomed the move, calling Shulkin "a respected leader" and "among the most qualified" candidates considered for the post. He also noted Shulkin was appointed under the Obama administration.

"After calling the Department of Veterans Affairs 'the most corrupt agency in the United States' on the campaign trail, the president-elect's decision to retain a current VA leader and Obama-appointee is a notable departure from his inflammatory rhetoric," Takano said. "I sincerely hope he will leave his promise to move the VA toward privatization on the campaign trail as well."

The VA in recent years has allocated more funding to allow veterans to seek more private-care treatment options. Even so, roughly three in four vets who responded to a Military.com reader survey said they support Trump's proposal to expand non-VA health care options, citing long commutes or limited appointments at VA facilities.

Multiple veterans groups -- including those with competing priorities -- embraced Trump's nomination of Shulkin. "It is no secret that the VA has been failing veterans for years," said Mark Lucas, executive director of Concerned Veterans for America. "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. CVA will seek to partner with Shulkin on urgently needed reforms, such as empowering veterans to access care outside the VA when the VA is failing them."

Meanwhile, Joe Chenelly, executive director of American Veterans, said he was "pleasantly surprised" by the selection.

"In the absence of clarity about who was to lead the VA, we grew more than a little concerned that political considerations might undermine veterans' best interests," Chenelly said in a statement. "But this wise decision by President-elect Trump validates what we’ve long known and said -- that the Veterans Health Administration is on the right track despite a prolonged, concerted smear campaign aimed at dismantling and privatizing veterans care. We applaud the transition team's diligence."

-- Brendan McGarry can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.

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