WASHINGTON — The Senate easily confirmed Dr. David Shulkin as the new Veterans Affairs Secretary on Monday night, making him the first non-veteran ever to serve in the post.
Shulkin, who currently serves as the head of VA health programs, was approved by a vote of 100-0. He is expected to be sworn into the Cabinet post on Tuesday.
The 57-year-old physician was praised by lawmakers from both parties and veterans advocates as a leader with inside knowledge of the veterans bureaucracy and critical perspective of ways to reform those offerings from his time as a healthcare executive.
"The solutions to VA's problems should be based on common sense rather than partisanship or an extreme agenda, and I think Dr. Shulkin recognizes that," said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and ranking member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.
"He is committed to our nation's veterans above all. Through the conversations I've had with him over the last year and a half, I think he understands the challenges that are ahead of us in the VA … Dr. Shulkin is on top of it."
Committee chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., called Shulkin "the right man for the veterans administration" and hailed the vote as a rare moment of bipartisanship in the increasingly divided chamber.
Shulkin is the only member of President Donald Trump's Cabinet to be held over from former President Barack Obama's administration.
He's also the first non-veteran to oversee the department or any of its predecessor agencies. Over the last 94 years, each of the 26 other men to serve in the job boasted military experience.
Shulkin’s parents both served in the Army, and he was born on a military base in Illinois. In his confirmation hearing earlier this month, Shulkin said the military and veterans care has played a persistent role in his life.
"As a young doctor, I trained in several VA hospitals," he said. "I view my service at VA as a duty to give back to the men and women who secured the uniquely American freedoms and opportunities we all enjoy, because of sacrifices they made."
He also repeatedly promised not to "privatize" VA services, and told lawmakers he would not have accepted Trump’s nomination if it came with such a requirement.
"What I told him is that I am a strong advocate for the VA, that the services that are available in VA are not available in the private sector," Shulkin told senators. "My view of where VA needs to go is an integrated system of care, taking the best of VA and the best in the community, and that's what I would work towards."
In a statement, Veterans of Foreign Wars National Commander Brian Duffy praised the Senate vote as an important step ahead for the community.
"Veterans are very fortunate to have Dr. Shulkin voluntarily stay in what has evolved into the most scrutinized and criticized position in the country. And it should be," he said.
"What he brings to the job is a love for veterans, for doing what's right, and for knowing what needs to be done to fix what's broken, to hold employees accountable, and to restore the faith of veterans in their VA. The VFW looks forward to working with him and his staff."
Paul Rieckhoff, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, in a statement said his membership supported Shulkin's confirmation "but now the hard work for Shulkin and the President begins."
"Big promises from the campaign must be followed by big outcomes," he said. "Dr. Shulkin knows the VA and should not require time to learn. We expect and deserve to see results right away."
Trump made VA reform a pillar of his presidential campaign, including releasing a 10-point plan which called for more mental health care professionals in the department, a private White House hotline devoted to fielding complaints from veterans, and a commission to "investigate all the fraud, cover-ups, and wrongdoing that has taken place in the VA" in recent years.
Much of that work has been stalled waiting for a new permanent head for the department. Decisions on who will serve as Shulkin’s chief of staff, top health official and other key deputies are expected to be announced in coming days.
Shulkin is the ninth permanent secretary confirmed by the Senate since the Department of Veterans Affairs was reorganized in 1989. Each of other eight were also approved without opposition, either through unanimous or voice votes.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.