VA Secretary comes under fire during budget hearing

Jonathan Kaupanger
February 15, 2018 - 2:14 pm

Photo by Mike Theiler/Pool

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Although a couple lawmakers couldn’t help but take a shot at Sec. Shulkin about his European vacation troubles, competitive pay, mental health providers and appeals processes took up the majority of time in the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs VA budget request hearing today. 

“Thank you for keeping the focus of today on the important work,” Shulkin said.  “I’m committed to do what we have to do. I do regret the decisions made that takes the focus off that work.”  He then stated that he wrote a check to the US Treasury to cover his wife’s flight cost, adding, “I believe that this was essential travel. I do recognize the optics are bad.”

Representative Mike Coffman’s response to Shulkin was short, but did get his point across. “It’s not the optics that aren’t good,” said Coffman.“It’s the facts.”

Choice 

On the proposed budget, Shulkin confirmed to the committee that Choice funding would only last until May. The funds requested for next year represent a 50 percent increase of care outside of the VA, which was a concern for present members who thought think growith isn't sustainable.  

“I don’t think we’ll see the same rate of growth,” Shulkin countered.  He explained that in the three years since the program’s inception, veterans are just now understanding how to use Choice. 36 percent of veterans are now receiving medical care outside of the VA.  In 2015 this number was only at 22 percent.

Staffing

The VA needs exactly 2,912 more mental health providers. Shulkin informed the committee that the VA had about 30,000 health care provider vacancies on top of another 40,000 regular employee openings.

“If we don’t have competitive salaries, our vacancies stay open,” Shulkin said.  This concerned the committee because of the President’s proposed federal employee pay freeze for 2019, which Shulkin stated that he would seek a waiver for the VA to prevent such a freeze from occuring.

Currently, eight out of the top 22 leadership positions were still filled on a temporary basis, including the Undersecretary’s for Health, Benefits and the Chief Information Officer. For Health, Shulkin said that he was given three names, yesterday, to evaluate and the names have been forwarded to the White House for both the CIO and Benefits Undersecretary positions. 

Appeals

Shulkin informed the committee that 605 new staff members are being hired to help process claims. This would bring the total number of employees working claims up to 2005. The problem, as stated by some committee members, is that new staff was untrained and no new positions would be directed to manage the legacy claims.The acting Benefits undersecretary couldn’t explain this.

Records

Electronic Health Records (EHR) is a huge issue for VA. The VA is running 130 different versions of EHR’s and when asked why the EHR upgrade was taking so long, Shulkin responded with what could be the most honest answer to ever come out of the VA. 

“Given the track record if implementing big IT projects,” Shulkin said with a wry smile, “we have to really make sure we got this one right.”

Privatization

After discussing the constant push to get veterans care outside of VA, Ranking Member Tim Walz (D-MN) said, “I think it’s becoming more and more difficult, Mr. Secretary, for you to say I’m not supporting privatization.”  Chairman Phil Roe (R-TN) counted with a unique argument, saying because VA is hiring more staff, there can’t be privatization happening.