Veterans Affairs' Under Secretary of Health David Shulkin attends an event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, April 20, 2016.

Veterans Affairs' Under Secretary of Health David Shulkin attends an event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, April 20, 2016. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin on Friday promised major changes were coming to the agency, saying President Donald Trump expects it.

“We’re going to be looking for some major changes, to really reevaluate how we do things,” Shulkin said during a live, online question-and-answer podcast with veterans. “If you look at the president’s 10-point plan, he’s not looking for minor changes. The reason why I feel I got a 100-0 [confirmation] vote from the Senate is because there’s one thing the country agrees on -- that our vets deserve better than what they’re getting now.”

However, he did not offer veterans specifics about how he would change the department, only calling it a “modernizing of our system.”

Part of the change will include the Veterans Choice Program, which Shulkin said he wanted to “redesign” this year.

The program allows some veterans to receive care in the private sector with the VA paying the bill, but many veterans have criticized it as complex and confusing.

The Veterans Choice Program is set to expire in August. Shulkin said Friday he’s working with Trump and lawmakers to propose changes to the program, though no details were offered.

He’s previously deflected claims of “privatization.”

In Trump’s 10-point plan for VA reform, which was introduced during his campaign, the president said he wanted to allow all veterans the option to seek care in the private sector. Some veterans organizations have voiced concerns and contend paying more for veterans to seek outside care could diminish resources at VA facilities.

Scott Blackburn, who was named Friday as Shulkin’s acting deputy secretary, said the VA would “buckle down” and “get more disciplined.” Blackburn previously led former VA Secretary Bob McDonald’s VA transformation initiative, “MyVA.”

“The president wants to do some really big things,” Blackburn said Friday. “We still have a long way to go.”

Shulkin, who previously worked as VA undersecretary of health under McDonald, was confirmed Feb. 13 as the new VA secretary. The town hall-style event Friday was the first time that Shulkin spoke publicly to veterans as VA secretary. He said he would do more online town halls in the future if veterans requested them. On Sunday, Shulkin will address members of Disabled American Veterans at the organization’s winter conference in Arlington, Va.

Besides promising major changes, Shulkin on Friday condemned the “berating” of the VA by public officials and the media.

He first mentioned the issue during a VA podcast released Friday morning and reiterated his feelings during the town hall event in the afternoon.

“I think that it’s time to stop beating us up,” Shulkin said. “I’m disappointed there seems to be an obsession with finding our failings.”

That runs contrary to how Trump has spoken about the VA, which he has called “the most corrupt agency” and “probably the most incompetently run agency” in the government.

“The constant berating that the VA is filled with unethical people is really painting a picture that is… a disservice to our veterans, because it breaks down their confidence in the system,” Shulkin said. “I worry there are people who need help but don’t come to us because they hear this narrative.”

During Shulkin’s confirmation hearing Feb. 1, Republican and Democratic senators also said they thought there were “good stories” at the VA, and that the agency was being unfairly criticized in some instances.

Shulkin, who is a physician, also said Friday he would continue a practice that he started as undersecretary for health and find time to treat VA patients.

On Monday, he saw patients on physician rounds in the VA’s New York Harbor Healthcare System.

“I think it’s important for me to make sure I stay connected with the services we deliver,” Shulkin said during the podcast. “I get tremendous value from actually being able to take care of vets and hear from them and work with staff.” Twitter: @nikkwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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