White House officials announced a slate of ten nominations to key Veterans Affairs leadership posts on Wednesday, including a candidate to become the department’s first confirmed undersecretary for health in more than five years.

The list also includes the top VA official in charge of benefits and the chairman of the new Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission, charged with evaluating the department’s footprint across America over the next year.

The moves come amid growing frustration among veterans groups with the department leadership vacancies. The top health job in particular has been a point of concern for years, as the department has navigated the coronavirus pandemic thus far without a permanent, Senate-confirmed point person guiding the Veterans Health Administration.

The last Senate-confirmed Under Secretary for Health for VA was David Shulkin, who left the post in February 2017 to take over the VA Secretary post.

Now, President Joe Biden has tapped Dr. Shereef Elnahal, president and chief executive officer of University Hospital in Newark, N.J., for the role.

Elnahal previously served as New Jersey’s Health Commissioner and was the first Muslim member of New Jersey’s Cabinet in state history. He also worked as Assistant Deputy Under Secretary for Health for Quality, Safety and Value at VA from 2016 through 2018, overseeing quality of care issues.

White House officials said Elnahal’s work during the pandemic played a role in his selection. He set up one of the first vaccination sites in New Jersey and has overseen a host of care quality and patient safety improvements at the hospital.

Biden nominated Ray Jefferson, president of Jefferson Group consulting firm, to fill VA’s Under Secretary for Benefits post, which has been vacant for more than a year.

He is a West Point graduate who lost all five fingers on his left hand while attempting to protect teammates during a Special Forces training accident in 1999. He also worked as the assistant secretary for Veterans’ Employment and Training at the U.S. Department of Labor during President Barack Obama’s term in office.

And White House officials on Wednesday announced eight nominees for the nine-member AIR Commission, including former Pennsylvania Rep. Patrick Murphy to serve as chairman of the panel. Jonathan Woodson, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, would serve as vice chairman.

The group is charged with reviewing VA leadership recommendations on facility closures and new construction across the country, similar to the military base closing commissions established in the 1980s and 1990s.

In a statement, Murphy said that he is focused on working with stakeholders to “to modernize the healthcare our veterans have access to.”

“An investment in the health and wellbeing of our veterans, their families, and caregivers is the best investment we can make,” he said.

Other members of the commission include:

  • William Carl Blake, executive director for Paralyzed Veterans of America;
  • Michael Blecker, executive director of Swords to Plowshares;
  • Christine Hill, Republican Staff Director for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health;
  • Joyce Johnson, former director of the U.S. Coast Guard’s health and safety programs;
  • Lucretia McClenney, former director of the VA’s Center for Minority Veterans;
  • José Ramos, vice president of government and community relations for the Wounded Warrior Project.

Senate leaders have not announced a timeline for when confirmation hearings and votes on the nominees will take place. In a statement, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., promised to move quickly on the issue.

“Veterans and their families deserve a fully-staffed leadership team at the department,” he said. “I look forward to reviewing these individuals’ qualifications to ensure they are each up to the task to deliver veterans their earned health care and benefits.”

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.

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