When Donald Trump selected David Shulkin as his Secretary of Veterans Affairs, some political supporters of the president were baffled by the president’s choice. Trump had decided to hand the reins to an Obama appointee despite campaigning for radical change.
But the job was one that even some of Trump’s more political supporters didn’t want, overseeing a stubborn bureaucratic organization that resisted big changes.
But Shulkin rejects the political nature of his position, telling Breitbart News in an exclusive interview that no one questions him about his politics.
“I’m only here for one reason, and that is to fix the problems with the VA,” he said simply.
Shulkin joined the department in 2015 as the Undersecretary of Health in the wake of the fraudulent wait time scandal that obliterated respect for the institution. His private sector experience in managing health companies was essential to help the department restore trust. Shulkin explains that he took the job out of duty, not political expediency.
“I was not looking for this position, and when my country called me and told me that they needed help to fix this, I of course did what I hope every American would want to do, and that is to say, ‘I do want to help,’” he said.
In 2015, Shulkin worked at the Morristown Medical Center in New Jersey, where he was paid $1.3 million a year. By taking the job as an undersecretary in the Obama administration he took a salary cut, earning $170,000.
Trump publicly praised Shulkin for already doing a “fantastic job” during a recent interview with Fox and Friends host Pete Hegseth.
“The results already have been incredible,” he said.
Shulkin said he met with Trump in January at Trump Tower during the transition period, and he said he was encouraged by the newly elected president’s committment to America’s veterans.
“It was important for him to hear my ideas for how to the fix the system, and it was equally important for me to hear that this is a president that was truly committed and getting the system fixed,” Shulkin said. “That’s what I heard from him, and that’s why I agreed to take on this role.”
Rather than waging a war against the establishment in the VA, Trump chose continuity, appearing willing to allow Shulkin to continue the reforms that he started under Obama. The decision was approved by the Senate who confirmed his nomination with an unanimous vote of 100-0.
“It’s fitting to me that if there is going to be some continuity in the administration, that it would be in the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Shulkin said, referring the bipartisan priority of caring for veterans.
He is very aware of the promises that Trump made during the presidential campaign, including the aggressive 10 point reform plan for the VA.
Shulkin insists that he is committed to those promises.
“I don’t see it as campaign rhetoric,” he said. “The president put out a 10 point plan, and we are implementing all 10 points of his plan, and we are making significant progress in all the areas, and that’s what the president and I talk about when we get together.”
But as Shulkin approaches his goal of reform, problems at the Veterans Affairs continue.
On Wednesday, an inspector general’s report revealed that the clinic in Washington D.C. was badly mismanaged, endangering veterans who were seeking care in the nation’s capitol.
Shulkin immediately responded by reassigning the medical director and bringing in a hand-picked replacement to start reforming the center. Later, he held a press conference to answer questions about the report and vowed swift changes.
“We are acting differently. This is a different VA, and we’re going to act in the interest of veterans, and we’re going to act decisively and quickly, which is a departure from the culture of the past,” Shulkin told Breitbart News, when asked about his response.
Last month, Shulkin was faced with another embarrassing incident after a VA employee in Florida was caught watching porn while working with a patient. But the secretary argues he is limited by law from firing an employee immediately. The porn-watching employee was removed from the medical center and put on paid administrative duties for 30 days.
“This is an example of why we need accountability legislation as soon as possible,” Shulkin said in a statement in response to the news. “It’s unacceptable that VA has to wait 30 days to act on a proposed removal.”
That caught the attention of House Republican reformers who already passed a VA Accountability First Act reform bill to shorten the length of the firing process. But the legislation has stalled in the Senate, as Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson remains uncommitted to the bill.
Shulkin appeared on Fox News to raise attention to the issue, urging Congress to act.
“We’re taking a hard stance that we want this employee removed, and we do not believe the current rules allow us to do that quickly enough,” he said. “We need changes in the law, and I need the authority to remove these people immediately.”
Frustrated reform advocates who want action in Congress feel like this is business as usual, despite Trump’s campaign promise to make the VA great again.
But for Shulkin, the difference in tone signals an important message to VA employees and the American public.
“I understand the frustration, and we hear it loud and clear, that the country has that they want what veterans deserve and they want the system fixed, and they want accountable leadership, and that’s exactly what we are putting in place,” he said. “And we are identifying those leaders that frankly shouldn’t be in leadership, and we are making those changes … if we don’t get the people out that shouldn’t be working there, it demoralizes the rest of the workforce.”
Shulkin is very aware of the suicide rate among veterans and the statistic of 20 veterans a day committing suicide.
“It is my single top clinical priority,” Shulkin said.
He explained that out of the 20 veterans a day who commit suicide, only six are getting care from the Veterans Affairs, something he wants to change.
Part of solution, he said, is to promote an aggressive public outreach to veterans who aren’t in the system, and using predictive analytics to identify at-risk veterans who may be struggling with mental health issues. He also touted an increase of 200 more crisis line providers, to help answer the over 2,000 calls per day on the crisis hotlines.
In September 2016, more than one third of the calls to the suicide hotline were left unanswered, according to reports, a frightening statistic that Shulkin says has been fixed.
“We’re now answering 99 percent or more of all the calls that are coming into us,” he said.
Shulkin is currently trying to hire an additional thousand mental health professionals to join the VA and has instituted same day services for patients who have mental health problems.
“If anybody is in crisis, they can walk into any of our medical centers and expect help that day,” he said.