After years of mismanagement and an inability to deliver timely medical service, the Department of Veterans Affairs is undergoing major changes as its secretary, David Shulkin, receives praise from both sides of the aisle.
Shulkin is a medical doctor with a reputation for nonpartisanship, and he has taken an aggressive approach to solving the VA's structural problems, Politico reported Monday. Former President Barack Obama appointed him to be undersecretary of veterans affairs for health before President Donald Trump nominated him to his current Cabinet-level post, and Democrats and Republicans have lauded his efforts to bring change to the VA.
"What motivates me and what motivates Dr. Shulkin is the same, to provide the best care to veterans," said Rep. Phil Roe (R., Tenn.). chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. "I don't know whether he's a Republican or Democrat, and I could care less."
Roe is an obstetrician, and he said that Shulkin's medical expertise helps him to anticipate the right course of action.
"We think alike—it's almost scary sometimes," Roe said. "He'll say the same thing that I'd been thinking."
Neither of Shulkin's two immediate predecessors, Eric Shinseki and Bob McDonald, were doctors themselves. Shulkin's reputation among high-ranking Democrats provides hope that VA reform can remain an issue marked by bipartisanship.
"So far in his tenure, he has shown leadership and ability to focus on veterans, to keep ideology out of the equation and work in a bipartisan way," said Rep. Julia Brownley (D., Calif.), a senior Democrat on the Veterans Affairs Committee.
The Department of Veterans Affairs faces a long list of problems that Shulkin is using his strong support to tackle with bold reforms that have not initially had support. One such example was overhauling the VA's 40-year-old health record system, for which Shulkin had to bypass rules on contracting and consolidate support amid opposition from some in IT.
Shulkin is managing the Veterans Choice Act of 2014, which authorizes funds to care for veterans in the private sector, and he is also expanding technological options for patients to do things such as see doctors remotely. Overall, Shulkin views VA reforms through the lens of rebuilding trust among veterans, and that has led to tough-minded decisions prioritizing care over all other concerns.
Shulkin helped get legislation passed that made ineffective employees easier to fire, and he made a point of maintaining standards despite opposition. When he fired former director of the Washington, D.C. VA medical center Brian Hawkins, only to see an employee protection board reinstate him, Shulkin made sure Hawkins was moved to an administrative position outside of patient care.
Shulkin can make such politically risky moves in the pursuit of improved care while he has strong support from the president and lawmakers in both parties. Advocates of free-market reforms want more privatized options for veterans but still appreciate Shulkin's leadership.
"He's a very impressive person," said Dan Caldwell, policy director for Concerned Veterans of America (CVA). "He can drill down on the VA's problems, explain them, and find solutions that draw on his private-sector knowledge." CVA is part of the Koch brothers' political network and favors more private health care options for veterans than Shulkin does currently.
Shulkin's veterans-centered approach to managing the VA goes back farther than his time at the top job. Commenting on his nomination by Obama in 2015, Shulkin told Politico, "My only party is the veteran's party."