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Joseph R. Chenelly: Don’t change horses at VA

Joseph R. Chenelly: Don’t change horses at VA

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The writer, a Marine Corps combat veteran of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, is the national executive director of AMVETS, a veterans service organization. He wrote this for the Washington Post.

A long-awaited overhaul of veterans’ health care is being unveiled to the world. At the helm throughout the two years of developing this road map has been David Shulkin.

As the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is finally on the cusp of rolling out its master plan to ensure that every veteran has access to timely, quality care, the VA secretary is reportedly being considered to take over the Department of Health and Human Services.

Shulkin was drafted from the private sector in 2015 to tackle VA’s access crisis as it was being blamed for killing veterans stuck on secret wait lists, forced to line up for months before being seen. He was appointed undersecretary of VA’s Veterans Health Administration by President Barack Obama and promoted 18 months later to VA secretary after President Donald Trump was elected.

Shulkin was already intimately aware of the challenges he faced coming in, having worked closely with his predecessor, Bob McDonald. That experience mattered in understanding the VA as well as the relationships with Congress and the veteran communities and organizations within it.

Shulkin elevated his top aides to seamlessly backfill. While other agencies struggled through drastic change, VA benefited from continuity. The result is perhaps the most productive first year among any of Trump’s Cabinet-level positions.

Now the prospect of VA losing its chief at this critical time is alarming. But significantly compounding the concern is that two of Shulkin’s top lieutenants just quit. Both were driving creation of the new “CARE” plan, which stands for Coordinated Access and Rewarding Experiences, a multibillion-dollar strategy to ensure access for veterans who live far from VA facilities or near VA medical centers that are over capacity or underperforming.

The coordinated access plan is the product of more than two years of collaboration by VA, veterans service organizations and other stakeholders. Much of the plan, expected to be released this month, contains a lot of vagueness, outlining policies but leaving the creation and implementation of regulations up to the VA secretary — someone, it is hoped, intimately involved in its creation. We cannot leave formation of these regulations to a person who was not integral in establishing the overall strategy.

VA has three major pillars: health care, veterans benefits and cemeteries. Each is vital to the government keeping its promise to veterans and their families, so each is supposed to be led by an undersecretary confirmed by Congress. But Trump has yet to nominate anyone for VHA or the Veterans Benefits Administration. If the administration does not move wisely, it will create a dangerous leadership void in an agency that the president often says is among his most important.

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