Accused of “doubletalk,” Shulkin defends his VA during Senate hearing

Jonathan Kaupanger
January 18, 2018 - 1:39 pm

(Photo by Oliver Contreras)

One can almost feel sorry for VA Secretary David J. Shulkin as he sat in the hot seat during yesterday’s Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs committee meeting. Almost being the key word of that sentence.

The meeting was called so Senators could hear directly from the Secretary about the VA is doing. Specifically, they wanted to know how VA reform legislation was panning out.

“On numerous occasions, you and I met in my office. We have had numerous telephone conversations.  In every instance, in my view, you led me to believe that you and I were on the same page,” Republican Senator Jerry Moran said to Shulkin, just before pulling out a can of whup-ass. “I’m of the opinion that our inability to reach an agreement is in significant part to your ability to speak out of both sides of your mouth.  Doubletalk.”

Shulkin, as you may imagine, didn’t take well to that comment. Entertaining committee drama aside, how exactly is the VA doing almost a year into Shulkin’s tenure as head of the agency?

On VA Accountability, Shulkin said that once the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act became law, he was able to develop guidance and training for managers and HR personnel started right away. The Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP) started receiving information – disclosures as the VA calls them – from whistleblowers in June of last year.  Since last summer, there have been 1,029 disclosures.

Out of those disclosures, 232 of the complaints state that whistleblower retaliation has occurred. The OAWP is supposed to protect whistleblowers by putting temporary holds on personnel actions.  As of last week, only 31 percent of these whistleblowers have had protection from retaliation.  That said, there are 139 active investigations of misconduct brought against 228 senior executives.

Many of the complaints haven’t been fully vetted yet due to the understaffed department. But understaffed is the name of the game at VA right now.  Four senior positions have remained unfilled and one, the Undersecretary for Benefits has been open since October 2015.  The three other positions, Assistant Secretary for Information Technology (CIO), Undersecretary for Health, and even the top job for the OAWP, the Assistant Secretary for Accountability & Whistleblower Projection are yet to be filled.

Shulkin did explain the holdup for these very important positions. For the CIO, a selection has been made and that person is now undergoing the vetting process at the White House.  The Undersecretary for Benefits, a job that as of today has been open for 825 days, could be filled soon. Someone had been chosen to fill this job, but they withdrew from consideration.  The next person down – still a top choice by the Secretary, is going the White House vetting process as well.  And according to Shulkin, the White House “understands the critical nature of this.”

A bright moment of Shulkin’s testimony was when he told the Senators about how the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017, which became law in August. The secretary said that the new appeals process will be fully implemented by 2019, but major improvements have already happened.

There are, according to Shulkin, 470,000 appeals waiting for judgements right now. This year, the Appeals Board is expected to produce over 81,000 decisions – 30,000 more than last year – in fiscal year 18.  The Rapid Appeals Modernization Program was launched in November last year.  It’s still a volunteer appeals process and to date, 3 percent of veterans who have been waiting for the VA decision have used this new program.  Instead of waiting for years, decisions are being made within 30 days and 75 percent of these are going in the veterans favor.

For Community Care and Choice Program, the secretary shared some pretty incredible numbers that explains where the $4.2 billion has been spent so far. There was more than 100 million VA medical appointments last fiscal year, and out of that 32.7 million outpatient medical care appointments were completed through VA’s community care appointments.

The Veterans Choice Program continues to be popular, 1.1 million vets used this program for their healthcare, 35,000 more than the prior year.

Shulkin also briefly touched on what’s going on with the Electronic Health Record upgrade. The process is on a pause right now so an external assessment of language in the request for proposal, which was held the first week in January.  The company used to conduct this assessment is finalizing recommendations and comments and will submit its final report to Shulkin and other stakeholders by the end of the month.