Pentagon & Congress

Administration officials move slowly to fill open VA leadership posts

WASHINGTON -- Two months into his tenure as Secretary of Veterans Affairs, David Shulkin still doesn't have most of his top team in place.

But that could change in coming weeks.

VA officials announced Monday they have launched a new search committee to identify candidates to be the next under secretary for health for the Veterans Health Administration, a key post that will be at the center of medical access issues facing the department.

That committee is scheduled to report back with a preferred pick by May 22. Members of the committee have not yet been announced.

The move comes a few weeks after a similar search panel was formed to select the next under secretary for benefits for the Veterans Benefits Administration, a post that will be responsible for fixing both the first-time benefits backlog and the growing number of unresolved appeals cases.

That panel is expected to report back on April 20.

If both panels stay on schedule, it could put at least two more top department leaders in place by early summer, depending on a Senate confirmation schedule.

Shulkin’s Cabinet job — he was confirmed by the chamber in February — is the only one of 14 senior VA leadership posts currently filled by a permanent nominee. The others are all manned by acting assistants or under secretaries.

That type of turnover isn’t unusual, even without a change in White House administrations. Following the 2014 wait time scandal that forced the resignation of then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, all of the leadership posts were replaced in a span of two years.

But the lack of permanent department heads has raised concerns from advocates inside and outside VA, who say that acting department heads are less likely to be able to enact the sweeping reform promises made by both Shulkin and President Trump.

Outside critics have voiced similar concerns about the slow pace of Pentagon appointments for Trump. He still have not announced his pick for Navy secretary and dozens of other political appointment jobs within the Defense Department.

The last time a commission was formed to pick a new VA health undersecretary was 2015, when they picked Shulkin. He served in that role under VA Secretary Bob McDonald for 18 months before Trump tapped him as the first non-veteran ever to lead the department.

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

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