Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) David Shulkin discussed with Breitbart News Daily on SiriusXM on Thursday his efforts to reform that notoriously troubled agency.
Host Alex Marlow judged that Shulkin has “one of the toughest jobs in Washington,” since both Democrats and Republicans are “fed up with the way the VA was handled in the previous administration.”
“You’re absolutely right that this is an issue the country agrees upon, and we see it with bipartisan support,” said Shulkin.
“Basically, what we’re doing is, we’re treating this like a business. That’s really from the president’s leadership, where we’re dealing with problems that have been left to neglect for decades and making sure that we address them because we believe it’s important that this country [has] a strong, sustainable system that cares for its veterans,” he said.
“When you send somebody off to conflict, you really, as a country, have a responsibility to that person for the rest of their life, no matter what happens to them when they’re serving their country,” he declared.
“Coming from the private sector, I always start with having the right leadership in place,” explained Shulkin, who was president and CEO of the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, among other private-sector healthcare positions. “That’s why it was so important for us to get an accountability bill passed. Actually, the president’s going to be signing the accountability law for VA into place on Friday.”
“That allows us to make sure that if somebody is in the wrong place or doesn’t belong working in the VA, that I have the authority to be able to remove them. That’s going to make a big difference to the thousands of employees that come to work for the right reasons and work very hard. It’s demoralizing when people are working alongside you that you know shouldn’t be there,” he said.
“I think what our veterans deserve is a modern state-of-the-art system,” Shulkin said. “We, unfortunately, for so many years, have neglected this. We have computer systems that are 40 years old. We have buildings on average that are over 50 years old. While so much of the rest of heath care has been out there taking advantage of the advances, VA, in some areas, has fallen behind.”
“That’s what we’re making sure that we’re addressing. We just announced a brand new state-of-the-art electronic medical system that is going to be coordinated with the Department of Defense. We’re getting rid of our old buildings, and we’re creating the types of facilities that we all want our veterans to be cared for in,” he said.
Marlow asked how a 40-year-old computer system could possibly be functional for a modern medical system.
“Well, it’s not,” Shulkin replied frankly. “Our financial system is based on COBOL programming, which I think we stopped using COBOL in most modern businesses in the seventies. It’s really even hard to find people who know how to program in that language anymore.”
He stressed the importance of “operating like a business” to ensure America puts its best resources forward for “those who have put their lives on the line to protect us.”
Shulkin said the new accountability law was a vital tool for removing unsatisfactory employees after appropriate procedures have been followed. He observed ruefully that under the current process, “merit system protection boards would just bring those people right back.”
“That’s really the best way to demoralize a workforce and to get ineffective results, is to have people that you know shouldn’t be working there brought back to work,” he contended. “There was a belief that people couldn’t be removed if you were a federal employee.”
“This is not about unfairly removing people,” he added. “We do believe in due process and in making sure that everyone has a right to be able to get information appropriately looked at – but once you complete an investigation, and once you have that information, if a person has deviated from the values of the organization, they shouldn’t be able to stay there.”
Shulkin observed that in large organizations like the VA, “regulations and bureaucracy tend to grow, but it’s hard to get rid of them.”
“We’re directly targeting these regulations and this bureaucracy under the president’s leadership,” he said. “We’ve been able to remove rules and regulations that simply don’t make sense. We’re now treating veterans that were discharged with emotional injuries, but they didn’t have the right type of paper to be treated. These are veterans that were out on the streets and not getting care they needed. We simply just removed that regulation.”
“We had regulations that were preventing us from paying bills for veterans. Veterans were being brought to credit agencies and essentially being taken to court. We got rid of those bureaucracies and regulations,” he continued. “We had regulations that added about 40 percent to the cost of building state nursing homes. We got rid of those as well. We’re really beginning to tackle this red tape and regulations that have been around and just added on layers and getting rid of them. That’s really operating like a business.”
Shulkin said he was calling in experts from the private sector to help reduce the stunning amount of money lost to waste and fraud.
“We have many efforts in place to identify fraud, waste, and abuse. I’ve just recently announced that I’m going to be starting a task force with experts from around the country who can come in and help us identify new state-of-the-art methodologies and technologies, using Big Data to identify additional options,” he said.
“I believe it is so important that our taxpayers have confidence in the way that we’re spending our money, and that the money that we do put forth for care of veterans is going to veterans and not into issues that lead to waste and abuse,” Shulkin stressed.
Shulkin said the VA’s highest clinical priority is to reduce veteran suicides.
“We have 20 veterans a day taking their life. That’s almost one an hour. That’s really an unbelievable figure to put your head around,” he said. “That’s totally unacceptable.”
“While this is a huge problem in our population, this is also a public health crisis among the American public,” he added. “One hundred twenty Americans take their lives every day through suicide. So we see here an example where the VA sees problems actually earlier than the rest of the American public. When we start addressing issues, we help everybody across the country begin to improve the health of all citizens.”
“We’re doing a large number of activities to begin to address this issue of veteran suicide,” he pledged. “Only 6 veterans of the 20 a day are getting care in the VA system. That means that 14 are out there, somewhere in the community, many of them not getting any care.”
“Our biggest effort is to educate people and let people know that veteran suicide is everybody’s priority, and if there’s a veteran in your life – a family member or a friend or a colleague that you see needs help – the VA is there for them, and we’re making care easier to get access to,” he said, promising that local VA centers would be able to provide troubled veterans with the help they need.
Marlow relayed a question from a disabled veteran who asked why they don’t have access to a Tricare system, instead of having to rely on the VA for everything.
“That’s a good thought,” Shulkin replied. “What we’ve begun to do is to start not only working with our colleagues at the Tricare system, but beginning to use the private sector healthcare system in a much larger way than ever before. Right now, over one-third of our care in the VA system is delivered by the community healthcare system. We’re building a system that takes advantage of what is best in the VA and what is best in the private sector, putting that together so that veterans get access to the best care anywhere.”
Another caller, a veteran of the Vietnam war, pointed out that the VA puts a curious amount of money and effort into language preferences for those who use the system, even though only English is spoken in the U.S. military.
Shulkin confessed he was uncertain if federal regulations required multilingual services or if “that’s something the VA has decided to do because of past experience.”
“We do have, as you know, people who serve in the U.S. military from many places around the world, but clearly, I think predominantly English is spoken, that’s our legal language,” he noted. “We’ll certainly take a look and see whether that’s something that we have the ability to change or not.”
Marlow asked Shulkin how he planned to address the large number of vacant positions in the department.
“We’re working very hard to do that. It’s a multi-factorial problem. One of the issues that we have to do is, we have to get the word out to your listeners and to everybody out there that the VA is a terrific place to spend a career. It’s a place that has one of the greatest missions available in the federal government. It’s a place filled with dedicated professionals and a great environment to work in,” Shulkin said.
“Many people don’t get to know that because all they do is hear reports that don’t necessarily reflect the actual environment that they’d be working in,” he added. “We’re asking people to speak to employees who work in the VA. Come and visit us. Consider it as an option. It’s really a terrific environment in which to serve.”
“We’re looking at ways to improve our hiring practices to do it quicker, to be competitive with the private sector that we often compete with. This is clearly one of our priorities because if you don’t get the right people in place, then we can’t fulfill our mission to our veterans,” he said.
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