In a move that left many veterans groups breathing a sigh of relief, President-elect Donald Trump on Wednesday selected the current head of the nation’s sprawling veterans health care system, Dr. David J. Shulkin, an appointee of President Barack Obama’s, to become secretary of veterans affairs.
If confirmed, he will be the first secretary to lead the department who is not a veteran.
While Trump’s chosen Cabinet is largely made up of Washington outsiders, Shulkin, 57, is a relative insider. He has helped lead several private health care systems, including Beth Israel Medical Center in New York and the University of Pennsylvania Health System. In 2015, he was appointed undersecretary for health by Obama and told to cut wait times in the troubled health care system, which includes 1,700 hospitals and clinics that serve nearly 9 million veterans.
In that time, Shulkin has nearly doubled the amount of health care that veterans receive through private doctors. But he has also rejected calls for broader privatization, saying that it would cost untold billions and undermine the hospital system – a stance that puts him at odds with Trump.
While campaigning, the president-elect regularly criticized the department as hopelessly corrupt and incompetent, and said he would allow all veterans to choose to go to private doctors. But the selection of Shulkin may signal that Trump plans to take a more measured approach.
“The Trump campaign made a big deal of what a sucking chest wound the VA was,” said Phillip Carter, an Iraq veteran who studies the agency for the Center for a New American Security, a research organization that focuses on the military and veterans. “Then they realized how hard it would be to turn around, and decided they needed to continue with the reforms that are already taking effect.”
Carter, who advised Hillary Clinton’s campaign on veterans issues, called Shulkin a smart choice, saying he was among a very small group with the expertise to run a large, complicated health care system.
“He knows the VA but he is not of the VA,” Carter said. “He comes from the private sector and knows how to blend private and public care.”
Trump praised Shulkin on Wednesday, saying in a statement, “I have no doubt Dr. Shulkin will be able to lead the turnaround.”