It was announced on Wednesday that Dr. David J. Shulkin, a physician who is a holdover from the current Obama administration, will be Trump’s VA chief.
Shulkin, if confirmed to the post, will become the first non-veteran to lead the nation’s veteran health care system. He serves now as undersecretary of the agency under Robert McDonald, a Republican appointed by President Barack Obama in 2014.
“I have no doubt Dr. Shulkin will be able to lead the turnaround our Department of Veterans Affairs needs,” Trump said at his first post-election news conference. “His sole mandate will be to serve our veterans and restore the level of care we owe to our brave men and women in the military,” Trump said.
“Sadly our great veterans have not gotten the level of care they deserve, but Dr. Shulkin has the experience and the vision to ensure we will meet the health-care needs of every veteran,” the president-elected added.
Indeed, the massive system that provides health services roughly nine million patients, has struggled to keep up with the growing number of veterans returning from the Middle East conflicts. An alarming number of veterans — 22 per day on average — commit suicide. The opioid epidemic has hit this segment of our society especially hard, as overwhelmed VA doctors over prescribe pain medication to vets.
“We are both eager to begin reforming the areas in our Veterans Affairs system that need critical attention, and do it in a swift, thoughtful and responsible way,” Shulkin said in a statement.
More and more veterans groups are urging the VA to allow for medical marijuana as a treatment for PTSD and other ailments. Here is what Dr. Shulkin has said for the record on cannabis:
“I wholeheartedly agree that VA should do all it can to foster open communication between Veterans and their VA providers, including discussion about participation in state marijuana programs. At the same time, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act, so it is unlawful to knowingly or intentionally distribute or dispense marijuana as a matter of federal law. VA and its providers are bound by this prohibition.”
There is not a lot of heft in that proclamation, but it does show a willingness to listen to veterans who would prefer medical marijuana instead of opioids. And although VA doctors are forbidden from making actual marijuana referrals or recommendations for medical marijuana, Shulkin said that he would seek to clarify that doctors are allowed to speak frankly with patients about it.
Last year, a bipartisan group of about 20 lawmakers in Congress urged the VA to change the directive, which expired in February, and asked the agency to ensure that “doctors and patients are allowed to have honest discussions about treatment options.”
Trump is a proponent of moving toward the privatization of health care for veterans, but it remains to be seen if this is Shulkin’s preference. Last year, he said the idea of reducing the federal government’s role in veterans medical care was the wrong approach.
“This would be a terrible mistake, a terrible direction for veterans and for the country, to essentially systematically implement recommendations that would lead to the end of the VA health-care system,” he said at the time.
Louis Celli, legislative director for the American Legion, is cautiously optimistic about the nomination.
“[It] says to me that Trump has faith in the direction VA is going with health care,” Celli said. “I think this is a huge reality check for a group of people who want to privatize VA.”
Brian Duffy, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, traditionally more conservative organization that the American Legion, said:
“The VFW is proud to support the nomination of Dr. David Shulkin as the next Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and we are most appreciative of his willingness to continue serving veterans and making the VA better.”
Jon Soltz, an Iraq War veteran and chair of the nonpartisan group VoteVets.org, released this statement:
“We’re pleased that Mr. Trump has confirmed that President Obama appointed good people at the VA, who are doing a good job, by elevating one of them to Secretary. Dr. David Shulkin understands the VA health care system and we fully expect that he will maintain its integrity. But, for Dr. Shulkin to gain our support, he must verify, under oath, that he will not implement any plan that would lead to full VA privatization — as Trump’s Koch-funded advisors laid out during the campaign.”
Before his current post in the VA, Shulkin was president of Morristown Medical Center, Gorybe Children’s Hospital, and Atlantic Rehabilitation Institute, and the Atlantic Health System Accountable Care Organization.