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The Veterans Affairs Building in Washington, D.C. is shown in this undated file photo.

The Veterans Affairs Building in Washington, D.C. is shown in this undated file photo. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON – The White House announced its nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system — a top role at the agency that has been vacant for the past five years.

In addition, the White House named the agency's new Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission and announced a candidate to be the next VA undersecretary for benefits.

The appointees are Shereef Elnahal as undersecretary for health for the Veterans Health Administration, Ray Jefferson as undersecretary for benefits for the Veterans Benefits Administration, Patrick Murphy for chairman of the VA’s Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission, and Jonathan Woodson for vice chairman of the review commission.

The VA has been without a confirmed leader of the Veterans Health Administration since the position was held by David Shulkin. Shulkin left the position in February 2017 after he was nominated by then-President Donald Trump as the VA secretary.

Richard Stone acted as the VA undersecretary of health for nearly three years and led the agency amid the coronavirus pandemic. He resigned in July after he learned he was not nominated for the position.

In October, the VA abandoned its initial search and restarted the process over again. The VA established another commission to aid in the search for candidates for the role of undersecretary for health – a position that oversees hundreds of hospitals and clinics that comprise the largest health care system in the country. Whoever takes the job will be responsible for hundreds of thousands of employees and an annual budget of about $61 billion.

The agency restarted the search out of an “abundance of caution,” VA spokesman Randy Noller said in October.

Noller also said the agency “received information that there may have been some irregularities in the consideration of the previous slate of candidates.”

The VA did not provide specifics about the situation.

Health, benefits undersecretaries

Dr. Shereef Elnahal, nominee for the VA’s undersecretary of health, has served as the CEO and president of University Hospital in Newark, N.J., since 2019. Before joining University Hospital, Elnahal served as the state’s health commissioner.

If appointed, it will not be Elnahal’s first foray into VA health care. He served as the assistant deputy undersecretary for health for quality, safety, and value from 2016 to 2018. During his time in that role, Elnahal managed the quality of care for the Veterans Health Administration and co-founded its innovation ecosystem, which is part of the VHA’s Office of Discovery, Education, and Affiliate Networks. The program help advance innovation and practices that helps improve veteran care.

Ray Jefferson, the nominee for undersecretary of benefits, is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and served as an army officer from 1988 to 1999, according to his LinkedIn profile. During his military service, Jefferson lost all five fingers on his left hand after he cupped a defective grenade to protect other soldiers.

After his service, Jefferson served various roles with state and federal government agencies, including as a special assistant to the secretary of Commerce, and deputy director for Hawaii’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. In 2009, former President Barack Obama appointed Jefferson as the assistant secretary for Veterans’ Employment and Training at the Department of Labor.

However, in 2011, two subordinates accused Jefferson of procurement improprieties, such as directing government business to associates, according to a Washington Post report in 2020. The allegations forced Jefferson to resign.

But in September 2019, the Labor Department inspector general reversed the findings, exonerating Jefferson.

Jefferson is now the president of Jefferson Group Pte. Ltd., a global consulting firm based in Singapore. If confirmed, Jefferson will take over for Thomas Murphy, who acted as the undersecretary of benefits since January 2021. The role was officially previously held by Paul Lawrence, who served in the role from May 2018 until January 2021.

Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission

In January, the VA began reviewing its facilities across the country to determine which buildings to close and where to invest more resources.

The agency was to submit its recommendations at the beginning of the year, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in December during a Senate hearing.

In 2018, Congress approved the creation of an Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission to work on the “modernization or realignment” of VA properties. The White House and the VA provided five nominees for the commission. Four others are nominated as commission members by leaders in the House and Senate.

McDonough said Thursday that the agency is awaiting one more nominee from Congress. He also said the names were supposed to have been submitted last May.

“I don't want to handicap the situation, but that's our first big challenge, get the commissioners,” McDonough said Thursday. “Then the next big challenge is, the commissioners got to get to work and take a look at [the Asset and Infrastructure Review report].”

The report will be released on Monday morning.

McDonough said the committee has until next February to make determinations about the VA’s recommendations. Afterward, the recommendations move on to the president then Congress. McDonough said they can only vote down the recommendations if they disapprove.

Patrick Murphy, nominee for chairman of the VA’s Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission, was the first Iraq War veteran to serve in Congress. He was a congressman from Pennsylvania after serving as an Army paratrooper. He received a Bronze Star for his service.

Murphy previously served as acting undersecretary of the Army during the Obama administration. He serves now on the Cyberspace Solarium Commission.

Jonathan Woodson, nominee for vice chairman of the AIR commission, is a professor at Boston University. He previously served as the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs as well as the director of Tricare management activity in the Defense Department from 2010 to 2016.

The others nominated as commissioners are William Blake, executive director for Paralyzed Veterans of America, Michael Blecker, co-founder of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans and the California Association of Veterans’ Service Agencies, Christine Hill, Republican staff director for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs subpanel on health, Rear Adm. Joyce Johnson, Ret. Army Col. Lucretia McClenney; and José Ramos, vice president of government and community relations for the Wounded Warrior Project.

author picture
Sara Samora is a Marine Corps veteran and the veterans reporter for Stars and Stripes. A native Texan, she previously worked at the Houston Business Journal and the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung. She also serves on the boards of Military Veterans in Journalism and the Houston Association of Hispanic Media Professionals.
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