WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs has been without its top health official since last February, when he was promoted to the secretary job.
On Capitol Hill on Wednesday, VA Secretary David Shulkin acknowledged its going to be a while longer before that position is filled.
Department officials are planning to launch a new search commission in coming weeks to recommend candidates for the VA under secretary for health position, the third such commission in last 12 months. The previous two commissions failed to come up with a name, despite months of effort.
This time, they’re hoping for a candidate by early spring, more than a year into the new administration.
Members of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee expressed concerns that the department has been without its top health official for a year, amid months of complex negotiations on overhauling VA’s community care medical programs.
They also noted that the health job isn’t the only prominent one at VA still unfilled by a permanent appointee. The department’s new assistant secretary for accountability position has not yet been named, more than 200 days after it was created. The department’s top information technology post has been vacant for almost a full year.
And the department’s under secretary for benefits post, which oversees a host of payout and disability assistance programs, has been without a full-time appointee since October 2015.
Shulkin said he expects nominees for the benefits and IT posts to be announced in coming weeks, with background checks already underway for a pair of possible candidates. But the health position remains more difficult.
“I think it may be one of the hardest jobs in America,” he told reporters after the committee’s hearing Wednesday. “This in not only the largest health care system, but it’s operating not only within the challenges of health care but also the challenges of a federal government organization.
“It is one that is wide with criticism and public scrutiny. When you put all of those together, that is a pretty tough job. I know, because I held it before.”
Shulkin served in the post from June 2015 until he became VA secretary last February. He took over the post 13 months after his predecessor, Robert Petzel, who resigned amid the department’s wait time scandal in 2014. Petzel took over that post in February 2010, 10 months after his predecessor stepped down.
Lawmakers have complained about a host of executive branch vacancies as President Donald Trump enters his second year in office. White House officials have countered that Senate Democrats have been slow to allow confirmation of nominees they have forwarded to Congress.
Shulkin said he is not concerned about the vacancy for now, although he acknowledged that he wished it was already filled.
“Fortunately, we have an excellent acting under secretary in Dr. (Carolyn) Clancy, who is very experienced,” he said. “She has been in that acting under secretary role before. I’m very confident in her capabilities.
“So we’ll continue this recruitment until we get the right person.”
Committee members said they hope finding that person happens soon.
“I know you’re trying, but an A for effort isn’t good enough,” said committee chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. “We’ve got to find a way to get the best people in America in these open positions, working for our veterans.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.