The full Senate on Monday night voted to approve Dr. David Shulkin as the next head of the Department of Veterans Affairs, making him the only holdover from the Obama administration to hold a cabinet post under President Donald Trump.
The vote was unanimous, 100-0, for Shulkin, who had served as the under secretary for health at the VA for the past 19 months. He was to be sworn in by Vice President Mike Pence.
In brief remarks before the vote, Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican and chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, noted that Shulkin also was approved unanimously by the committee following his confirmation hearing.
Isakson said Shulkin is the best choice for "fixing the problem" at the VA. "We don't want to privatize the VA. We don't want to reorganize the VA. We want to make sure the VA works," he said.
In taking the oath, Shulkin becomes the ninth person -- and only non-veteran -- to lead the VA, succeeding business executive and West Point graduate Bob McDonald.
Trump considered a wide range of potential VA nominees, and invited several for interviews at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, before settling on Shulkin, 57, an internist with more than 30 years of experience at major health care systems.
During the selection process, several major veterans organizations, concerned about the credentials of the potential nominees and Trump's push for more privatization of VA care, took the unusual step of urging him to consider keeping McDonald on the job to continue reforms at the VA.
During the election campaign, Trump repeatedly called the VA a "broken system" plagued by wait times, backlogs in claims, and a bloated bureaucracy that stifles reform. He charged that undocumented immigrants are treated "better than our vets," and suggested that more privatization is the remedy.
In his Senate Veterans Affairs Committee confirmation hearing earlier this month, Shulkin said he would oppose full privatization of veterans care while seeking to expand community choice programs.
"There should be no doubt I will seek major reform and accountability, but the Department of Veterans Affairs will not be privatized under my watch," he said. "If confirmed, I intend to build a system that puts veterans first and allows them to get the best possible health care and services wherever they may be, in the VA or in the community."
Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat and the ranking member of the committee, cautioned Shulkin. "You will be fighting a war on multiple fronts" as secretary, he said.
"While trying to carry out the department's mission, you'll have to deal with a Congress that has not proven itself to be the most productive or cooperative partner," Tester said. "And you'll have to deal with a new president who has taken some public positions -- on everything from privatization to his personal opinion of the VA workforce -- that are in stark contrast to positions you have taken."
Shulkin will be taking over a $180 billion-a-year VA, with a workforce of 314,000 serving 6.5 million veterans annually at 1,700 hospitals and clinics.
Veterans groups applauded his Senate approval.
"Veterans are very fortunate to have Dr. Shulkin voluntarily stay in what has evolved into the most scrutinized and criticized position in the country -- and it should be," said VFW National Commander Brian Duffy.
"What he brings to the job is a love for veterans, for doing what's right, and for knowing what needs to be done to fix what's broken, to hold employees accountable, and to restore the faith of veterans in their VA," Duffy said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.