Local Doctor Takes on Role as New Veterans Administration Undersecretary

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Dr. David Shulkin wants the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to continue receiving its fair share of headlines in the near and long term. He just wants to make sure the coverage turns to all of the things the VA is doing right and making better.

Shulkin has more than a passing interest in the fate of the VA, which has been under fire for years for a myriad of issues related to how it takes care of — or, in many cases, fails to take care of — the nation’s veterans. The Gladwyne resident and Drexel University School of Medicine graduate is the incoming Undersecretary of Health for the department.

Shulkin, 55, most recently served as president of the Morristown Medical Center in New Jersey, a role he had been in since 2010.

His new role as chief executive of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) will allow him to lead more than 1,700 sites of care that serve almost 9 million veterans every year. The VHA is the nation’s largest health care system and Shulkin will oversee the nearly 300,000 people who work in the organization.


“My desire is to make the type of changes to the organization that will allow us to deliver the highest care to veterans wherever they are in the country,” he said. “There are a lot of things that have happened in the last year. My goal is to fix those issues to get back to delivering the care our veterans deserve.”

Bringing in someone from the private sector is a step in the right direction for the department, said Darin Selnick, senior veterans affairs advisor for the nonprofit organization Concerned Veterans for America.

A veteran himself, Selnick served as special assistant to the secretary of the VA from 2001 to 2004 and is confident in Shulkin’s potential in his new role.

“We think he’s a very good choice. He’s got the background you need in this position. He’s a turnaround artist in health care and he knows the private sector,” Selnick said. Bringing in someone from outside of the government is what the department needs, he added.

“We’re hoping he will help be a force that will take VHA healthcare out of the 1940s — where it’s been — and into the 2015 system.”

The VA has faced numerous shortcomings in providing health care to veterans, most notably and publicly the inability of veterans to make an appointment.

In Phoenix, Ariz., last year, reports concluded that VA employees in the city had been keeping secret waiting lists that made it seem veterans were accessing care more quickly than they actually were. It resulted in then-undersecretary Robert Petzel stepping down.

“First, I was sad that this was happening. Second, I was angry it was happening. Finally, those emotions changed to, ‘I wonder what I could do to help?’ ” Shulkin said of the outcome of the investigations in Phoenix.

He said that these reports provided a clear view on what to do going forward.

He added that he is looking forward to “being part of helping change the system so something like this never happens again.”

One problem Shulkin recognizes could have contributed to the scandals that have rocked the department is its inability to keep up with the high numbers of veterans who need care, which he says “cannot remain the status quo.”

“You can’t even have the opportunity to deliver high quality care if you can’t get in to get an appointment,” he explained. “I think that if you can’t get access to care, then it defeats the purpose of why the veteran system exists.

Despite these past issues, he is optimistic about the future of the care the hospitals will be able to deliver to veterans.

He noted that he has seen the VA do “a really good job” at expanding the amount of people the hospitals treat and the number of appointments available, which he says must remain a priority.

Shulkin said the government has helped lead the way to accomplishing the goal of accessible health care with initiatives such as the Choice Program, which allows veterans to get health care from non-VA doctors.

Using the Choice Card is something Selnick said Shulkin should focus on, especially in encouraging private sector doctors to sign up to participate in the program. Without that, a lot of veterans have been unable to find other health care options, he said.

“Denied health care is bad health care,” he said. “That’s been a constant problem.”

But the large numbers of veterans who are seeking health care, specifically the Vietnam and Korean War veterans, are contributing to why appointments may have taken longer than they should have, Shulkin said.

“It’s the classic problem that happens when you’re dealing with a national program of this size,” he explained, “which is that it often takes more time than you want, and I think everybody within the system — and everyone using the system — is impatient and wants to see this fixed quickly.”

He added that it’s important, but also challenging, to think about “what decisions can you make that have the biggest and fastest impact.”

Selnick hopes that Shulkin will be able to push the VHA healthcare into the 21st century “kicking and screaming.”

“We want what everyone wants,” he said, “which is better healthcare for veterans.”

mstern@jewishexponent.com; (215-832-0740)

 

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