Pentagon & Congress

Senators hint at easy confirmation for VA secretary nominee

Senate leaders have scheduled a confirmation hearing for VA secretary nominee David Shulkin next week and signaled a likely easy path to the post after meeting with him Wednesday.

If confirmed, the 57-year-old Shulkin, who has served as VA under secretary for health since June 2015, would be the first non-veteran ever to hold the post and the first appointee from former President Barack Obama's administration to be held over into President Trump's White House.

His confirmation hearing before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee will take place Feb. 1. Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., praised him as an exemplary candidate after announcing the date Tuesday.

"We all enjoyed bringing him on board 18 months ago," Isakson said. "He helped (former VA Secretary) Bob McDonald solve some big problems in terms of medical personnel. I am just so delighted that Trump decided to nominate him, and I hope we can have a thorough but expeditious hearing with him."

Other senators and veterans advocates have signaled similar support for Shulkin. The nominee met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, to discuss his plans for the department in advance of the hearing.

Last fall, Shulkin testified before the Senate in favor of plans to extend the controversial VA Choice Card program past August 2017, but also argued that the VA needs to remain "the care coordinator" for veterans’ medical needs.

He has also voiced support for expanding private-care partnerships with VA hospitals, a plan that Republicans in Congress have already endorsed.

But top Trump officials have hinted about going even further. Transition team officials said he would consider the idea of "privatizing" some VA services and offerings, in an effort to provide faster access to medical care to veterans.

Veterans groups have railed against those proposals. On Tuesday, Isakson said he was not interested in dismantling the VA.

"We have no interest in privatizing VA," he said. "We have every interest in making sure veterans have easy access to health care, and to reform the VA delivery system so we can do that. But there’s not going to be a privatization of VA. We’re going to expand opportunities."

If Shulkin faces no real opposition in the Senate, he could be sworn into the post by mid-February. Currently, former VA Chief of Staff Robert Snyder is serving in the top role at the department.

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com.

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