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Dr. David Shulkin, at his Senate confirmation hearing on Feb. 1, 2017.
Dr. David Shulkin, at his Senate confirmation hearing on Feb. 1, 2017. (Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — In his second White House press briefing in just over a month, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin on Wednesday underscored veterans issues as one of President Donald Trump’s top domestic priorities.

Wednesday marked Shulkin’s 100th day as VA secretary. Along with a renewed focus on reforming 13 areas of “significant risk” at the VA, Shulkin is attempting to bring more transparency to the agency, he said.

“What [Trump] told me is, it’s important we be open and candid and transparent about what the problems are,” Shulkin said. “That as a businessman, the only way to fix the issues in an organization is to come out and talk about what those problems are.”

Shulkin announced that Trump’s promised White House hotline for veterans would launch Thursday. The hotline was part of Trump’s 10-point plan for VA reform released during his presidential campaign. His plan stated the hotline would be active all day, every day, and answered by a real person.

Thursday is the hotline’s “soft launch,” Shulkin said. It will be fully operational by Aug. 15. The number for complaints is 855-948-2311.

Shulkin also called on Congress to pass legislation allowing him to more easily fire poor-performing VA workers. The House passed a bill in March to expedite the firing process for VA workers. The Senate is set to vote Tuesday on a revised version of the legislation.

Current law states federal employees are allotted 30 days’ advance written notice before they’re fired, demoted or suspended. About 1,500 VA employees are at that stage, awaiting disciplinary action, Shulkin said. The span of time from when a manager decides to fire an employee to their removal now averages 51 days, he said.

The legislation pending in Congress would cut that 30-day advance notice period to 10 days.

The press briefing came one week after the White House released Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget proposal, parts of which have been condemned by large veterans service organizations. Dozens of veterans organizations supported Shulkin through his confirmation process, lauding his experience as a doctor and VA executive and his opposition to privatizing the agency. Last week, many of them criticized decisions in the VA’s proposed 2018 budget — the first strong dissent from the organizations Shulkin has faced in his nearly four months on the job.

The budget proposes pulling $3.2 billion from one benefit program that aids disabled, unemployed veterans. The money would be used for the Veterans Choice Program, which allows veterans in certain instances to seek care outside of the VA system.

The American Legion last week called it “stealth privatization.”

Shulkin responded to the criticism Wednesday, stating there was time to work with the organizations and Congress “to make sure we’re doing this right.” Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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