National Press Club

VA secretary aims to focus agency on service-connected disabilities, rather than age-related ailments

November 7, 2017 | By Ken Dalecki |

David Shulkin

David Shulkin

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said at a National Press Club luncheon on Monday, Nov. 6, that he aims to focus department efforts on veterans with service-connected disabilities, such as brain injuries and post traumatic stress syndrome, rather than on a growing number of age-related ailments.

The nation's ninth VA secretary noted that the average degree of disability among some 4.4 million veterans receiving disability benefits has soared from 30 percent in 1995 to 50 percent today. Shulkin, an internist who served as undersecretary for health at VA before being confirmed to the top job in February, wants the department to promote independence for veterans by eliminating what he called disincentives to recovery while continuing to support those with severe disabilities. About 9 million of the nation's 21 million veterans are enrolled in the VA health care system.

In answer to a question, Shulkin said he supports denying VA benefits to those who receive a dishonorable discharge from the military. He included Bowe Bergdahl, who received a dishonorable discharge from the Army for abandoning his post in Afghanistan, and Devin Patrick Kelley, who killed at least 26 people in Texas on Nov. 4. Kelley received a dishonorable discharge from the Air Force in 2012. "I don't consider him a veteran." Shulkin said of Kelley, who was found dead in his car after a crash while fleeing the massacre scene. "He doesn't deserve that recognition."

While compassion warrants helping troubled individuals like Kelley, he said it should not come through the VA. But Shulkin said he does support VA assistance to those who receive discharges that are other than honorable but short of dishonorable.

Asked about the timeliness of providing veterans medical services, Shulkin said the "each day I think we are getting better" at reducing wait times since it became a major issue in 2014. He said wait times, which the VA makes public, are shorter than in the private sector.

The VA Secretary praised Congress for bi-partisan support for five major bills in recent months to improve VA employee accountability, expand medical care options, improve the claims appeals process and update the GI Bill. He said there is still "too much bureaucracy" in processing veterans claims and that current laws make financial management at the VA "completely irrational."

After years of study and delay, Shulkin said he has made recommendation on expansion of VA benefits to Vietnam War veterans claiming ailments due to exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange. Without giving details, he said "my intention is to do what is right for veterans" and that his proposals are now part of the rulemaking process.

Asked about protection for whistle blowers in the VA, Shulkin said he working to "strike a balance" between genuine whistle blowers and employees who don't do their job and claim whistle blower status.