WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin outlined an ambitious reform of nearly every aspect of his often-criticized department during a "State of the VA" address at the White House on Wednesday, calling it a sign of the president's commitment to helping veterans.
"Many of these challenges have been decades in building and they've spanned multiple administrations," Shulkin told reporters at the event. "This is the time for us to really address these chronic problems that in many ways have harmed veterans and their families."
The plan includes promises to speed medical care access to all veterans, reduce disability claims backlogs, expand community care options for patients, reduce VA's footprint nationwide, improve the department's information technology systems and reduce both the number of bureaucrats in VA's headquarters and "burdensome regulations" within the department.
Nearly all of the ideas have already been started by VA and touted by agency leaders in the last few months.
But together, the plan represents the most sweeping reform goals for the department since President Barack Obama in 2009 announced plans to end veterans homelessness, eliminate the claims backlog and modernize VA's files.
Shulkin said most of his 12-point reform plan won't require additional funding from Congress, but many parts will require new legislation authorizing significant changes in rules and authorities.
Some of those are already underway. The Senate is scheduled to vote in June on new accountability legislation that would make it easier to fire misbehaving VA employees. The House earlier this month approved new legislation to simplify the disability claims appeals process.
Others include getting lawmakers to consolidate existing outside care funding streams into a single new program and to authorize VA to shutter or sell off unused department facilities, things that VA leaders have been requesting for several years.
"The president, the vice president, Congress, veteran service organizations all share the goal to help modernize VA," Shulkin said. "That's why I'm confident that we can turn VA into the type of organization that veterans and families deserve and all of us want to see."
Other plans include a 10 percent cut in VA central office staff and a new waste, fraud and abuse advisory committee to be stood up in June.
A new program to compare VA hospitals to community care options has already identified 14 medical centers below acceptable care standards, prompting new oversight and performance fixes for those facilities.
Most of the reforms don't include a timeline, but Shulkin promised regular progress and updates on each topic. He said plans to reform VA's information technology will require new funding to complete, and he will present that plan to Congress later this summer.
Among the more controversial steps is an expansion of outside care options for veterans, a move critics have decried as "privatization" of the department.
Shulkin pushed back on that, saying he is not advocating for the slow dismantling of his department.
"This is not a privatization of VA. This is not diluting the impact of VA," he said. "Every day I'm in this job, I am more and more convinced that veterans and America need a strong VA. It's essential for national security, it's essential to honor our commitment.
"I will not allow our policies to weaken the VA. Our policies will strengthen the VA, but working with the private sector is the way to do that."
The roll-out of the reform plan was the latest in a series of high-profile events for VA in Shulkin’s few months in office.
He has already spoken with reporters from the White House briefing room twice, something his last two predecessors never did. Last month, to mark his first 100 days in office, President Donald Trump signed an extension of Obama-era health care programs in a crowded ceremony at VA, touting his commitment to fixing the department. Administration officials have repeatedly listed their top two priorities as rebuilding the military and taking care of veterans.
But veterans groups reacted with dismay earlier this month when Trump’s first budget proposal included plans to trim some benefits payouts to help curb growing department costs.
Shulkin defended that budget plan — and his pledge not to ask for more money for most of the reforms — as a difficult balance between serving veterans and being responsible with taxpayer funds.
"So we are going back and looking at programs and saying could those resources be reallocated in different ways, not to withdraw total dollars from veterans, but could they be revised and reallocated to work better for veterans?" he said.
"I understand that there is a lot of passion on this, and we will have plenty of time to work with Congress and with our veteran service organizations to make sure that we're getting this right."
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.