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VA Urged To Take Advantage Of Momentum And Keep Reforming Itself


Now a story about an uncontroversial Cabinet secretary in the Trump administration running a department with an agenda that has bipartisan support. It's a rare thing these days. The Department of Veterans Affairs has suffered scandal after scandal.

During the presidential campaign, candidate Donald Trump called it, quote, "the most corrupt agency in the U.S." Now the department may be enjoying a rare moment of opportunity. Here's NPR's Quil Lawrence.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: VA Secretary David Shulkin is a holdover from the Obama administration, appointed as undersecretary in 2015. He used to hear things like this at congressional hearings.


JEFF MILLER: There's some rotten people that work in the department that need to be fired, not protected. They can't budget right. They can't allocate dollars right.

LAWRENCE: That was the former chairman of the House Vets Affairs Committee, Jeff Miller. Here's how the hearings sound now.


PHIL ROE: I certainly enjoy being at the White House during your swearing-in with your lovely family.


ROE: Mr. Secretary, thank you for being here. And congratulations once again on your confirmation.

LAWRENCE: That was the new chairman, Republican Phil Roe, opening the first substantive hearing for Secretary Shulkin. Those are extreme examples, but you get the idea. With Republicans holding Congress and the White House, they now own the VA, says Phil Carter with the Center for a New American Security.

PHIL CARTER: Many of the people bashing the VA are now in charge of the Trump administration or affiliated with it in some way. So that may give the VA the breathing space to pursue a reform agenda that is outside of the headlines for a year or two.

LAWRENCE: Carter is an Iraq vet and advised the Hillary Clinton campaign. But Carter says he has mostly the same advice as his counterpart in the Trump campaign, retired Army Gen. Michael Meese.

MICHAEL MEESE: Dr. Shulkin has the opportunity to put people that are like-minded and aggressive in place. And I think he has the right incentives to be able to do that. And I think he's got a supportive White House. And I think he's got support on the Hill.

LAWRENCE: So at Shulkin's first hearing, he started making decisions on issues that have been bogged down in debate for years, like announcing that the VA will buy, not try to write, its own new software.


SHULKIN: I've come to the conclusion that VA building its own software products and doing its own software development inside is not a good way to pursue this. And we need to...


LAWRENCE: That hallelujah was from Julia Brownley, a Democrat. And the love fest continued when Shulkin changed another long-standing VA policy. In an effort to prevent veteran suicide, VA will open the door to vets with Other Than Honorable discharges from the military.


SHULKIN: We are going to go and we are going to start providing mental health care for those that are other than honorably discharged...



SHULKIN: ...For urgent mental health and...

LAWRENCE: Bipartisan applause. Now, the details are still getting sorted out. So is the budget, which may set up a more partisan fight, says Phil Carter. Still, he points out that reforms at the VA started under the last administration, and retaining Shulkin keeps that momentum.

CARTER: If the Trump team does nothing else but continue those reforms and see them through to completion, they'll have a win. If they do some modest government reform alongside that, they'll have an even bigger win.

LAWRENCE: Thats not to say they'll fix everything at the VA, which has over a thousand hospitals and clinics, says Michael Meese.

MEESE: Fixing and unifying that kind of system, if you had everything aligned perfectly, is still a monumental management task if there were no politics involved at all.

LAWRENCE: But Meese says he hopes VA can take advantage of the moment to quietly get to work while the public, the media and the White House are mostly consumed with other subjects. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF HINT'S "SHOUT OF BLUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.

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