On January 11, then-President-elect Donald J. Trump nominated David J. Shulkin, M.D., to be his administration’s first Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). At the time, Dr. Shulkin was serving as the agency’s Under Secretary for Health Administration. On February 1, the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs held a fast-tracked confirmation hearing for Dr. Shulkin. As an Obama appointee for his current position, Shulkin is expected to be confirmed in the general session of the Senate.
Dr. Shulkin’s hearing provided the Senate and the nation with the opportunity to consider the progress that is being made at the VA in a number of problematic areas.
The VA has come under intense pressure to adequately manage one of the largest bureaucracies in the world. We know the horror stories of long wait times for medical care, of combat veterans with suicidal ideations from post-traumatic stress disorder being ignored, and of patients being infected with diseases because the VA used unsterilized medical equipment for examinations.
Dr. Shulkin’s confirmation hearing focused entirely on the seemingly innumerable permutations of health care delivery and cost problems that come with managing the largest health care system in the United States.
But the VA has another serious but lesser-known problem: it has developed the nasty habit of interfering with the religious liberties of the men and women who use its facilities. There are two dimensions to this problem. First, we have the apparently difficult but straightforward matter of protecting the First Amendment free exercise rights of religious believers who visit or live in VA facilities. Second, medical science has come to recognize the importance of spiritual as well as physical care for the patient – a more difficult matter to fully understand and implement as policy.
For example, the standard setting organization for hospital care in the U.S., the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) has a policy which states, “For many patients, pastoral care and other spiritual services are an integral part of health care and daily life.” Therefore, hospitals should provide for pastoral care and other spiritual services for those patients who request this care. I would add, that creating an environment amenable to spiritual expression and healing is essential to the VA’s duty of care. Secular hostility and intimidation of religious and spiritual expression are incompatible with this objective.
During the Obama Administration, patient participation in religious observances of various kinds was deemed to violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause in many VA installations. Some of these policies bordered on being cruel and sadistic.
In the 2013 Christmas season, there was an outbreak of secularism at VA installations. One told American Legion representatives they could not hand out gifts to veterans if the wrapping paper included the phrase “Merry Christmas.” Another banned carolers from singing Christmas songs with religious expressions in public patient areas – but allowed caroling of government-approved secular songs. One facility prohibited the delivery of Christmas cards from local school kids to veteran residents because the cards included the phrases “Merry Christmas” and “God Bless You.” In Alabama, a young girl’s gift bags were not delivered to VA residents because each bag was labeled “Merry Christmas.”
In recent years, a number of VA administrators have been waging war against the presence of Bibles in their installations. In particular, the presence of a Bible on the “Missing Man” Tables has driven several VA administrators loopy with Bibles disappearing to never be seen again. At the Chillicothe VA facility in Ohio, a Gideon’s Bible disappeared after a sweep of common areas. The head administrator likened Bible removal to tossing out “flyers for yard sales, bake sales, local restaurants, auto repair businesses, tire stores, etc.” that appear in waiting rooms. Thus, we see the Bible being treated with an oblivious disrespect by the VA leadership.
To its credit, the VA has announced new guidelines that may help correct this problem, but it seems clear that the Trump Administration is going to have to create a new environment that promotes the spiritual happiness and healing of its patients. In the future, I hope that the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and Secretary Shulkin will address this matter in a hearing so the public can be assured that this long-term problem is being corrected with institutional changes that will prevent future recurrences. I have full confidence that Dr. Shulkin will be the leader who will address all the issues plaguing the VA, both medical and those related to the religious liberty of our veterans. The health of our veterans demands it.
Lt. General (Ret.) Jerry Boykin was one of the original members of the U.S. Army’s Delta Force and was also Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence (2002-2007.). He currently serves as Executive Vice President at Family Research Council.