VA Secretary Shulkin vows to push for veterans health center

Hugh Lessig
Contact Reporterhlessig@dailypress.com

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said Thursday he is "very frustrated" at stalled health care projects across the VA system, including a new center proposed for South Hampton Roads, and he remains committed to breaking the impasse.

Shulkin spent part of Thursday touring the Hampton VA Medical Center, where the patient workload has risen well above the national average in the past few years.

Given the space restrictions at the Hampton campus, the medical center's top priority is for a 155,000-square-foot health care center closer to the population centers of Virginia Beach and Norfolk. But that project, along with about two dozen others across the country, have been delayed in Congress due to conflicting views on budget impact.

The projects are classified as leases, even if new construction results, and some lawmakers say it's sufficient to set aside money for initial costs and the first year's lease payments. The Congressional Budget Office, which scores projects for budget purposes, says Congress should provide all the money up front.

"I'm very frustrated by it," Shulkin said in an interview with the Daily Press. "When the taxpayers give money to help add and build resources for veterans, we should be doing that. We shouldn't be stuck in a delayed process for approval."

"We're now looking at alternative pathways," he added. "We're exploring those because we need to find a way around this problem."

He declined to be more specific because plans haven't been finalized.

Shulkin also addressed how Hampton is using its existing space, hiring challenges and the hospital's role in a technology demonstration program.

His visit came one day after he held a White House briefing where he ticked off 13 areas of risk for the VA and his plans to address each one. The lengthy news conference was seen as a way to establish some transparency with the public.

During his tour, he said Hampton seems to be making the best use of its limited space, including a project that converted former administrative offices to patient-care areas. Hiring continues to be a challenge; Hampton is short 24 personnel in mental health and about 17 in primary care, he said.

He praised an initiative that allows Hampton patients to get immediate access to a mental health professional via computer tablets once they're in the hospital, getting rid of wait times.

Shulkin said Hampton is leading in another area of information technology.

"They're running, right here, some of our most advanced clinical IT systems, and we were very curious on our visit today to hear from the clinicians on how they think it's going, and they feel it's going well," he said. "This is an important site for us in terms of that."

Shulkin said he will soon announce where the VA will go in terms of clinical IT needs, adding, "We will look toward places like Hampton to help us in implanting leading-edge strategies."

One of Shulkin's priorities is reforming the program known as Veterans Choice, which refers patients to community-based providers if they live too far away from a VA facility or have to wait too long for an appointment. The program has been exceedingly popular in Virginia, where it launched in January 2015.

That popularity has brought growing pains. To coordinate non-VA care including Veterans Choice, Hampton has more than doubled its staff, officials said back in March.

Shulkin said he was grateful to Congress for extending the program until a new plan is submitted. He's looking at doing away with the rules on travel and wait times and replacing them with clinical rules, that should make the program "easier to use, less burdensome and make sure urgent-care veterans aren't waiting for care," he said.

Charles E. Schmidt, national commander of the American Legion, issued a statement Thursday praising Shulkin in the wake of his White House briefing and his commitment to openly discussing the VA's problems. But Schmidt said his organization remains concerned about President Trump's budget priorities, and how some benefits are being cut to fund Veterans Choice, calling it a "stealth privatization" of the VA.

Shulkin was adamant that veterans health care will not be unduly privatized under his watch. While the VA needs help from the private sector, he said it would be "really, really tough to start shrinking the VA and relying more on the private sector."

The capacity of the private sector is not endless, and Shulkin said hospitals in the region have told the Hampton VA that they are saturated with veteran referrals now.

As Shulkin spoke, he was flanked by Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott, who noted that Rep. Scott Taylor, R-Virginia Beach, had been with Shulkin earlier.

Asked what Congress could do to help, Scott pointed to Shulkin and said, "What we can do is support the secretary. This is a bipartisan issue."

Lessig can be reached by phone at 757-247-7821.

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