The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee this week unanimously approved Shulkin’s nomination, sending it to the full Senate.
But as the Washington Examiner has noted, Shulkin, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs undersecretary of health, “faces the unique challenge of overhauling” a troubled health care system “he’s spent the past two years defending.”
Some whistleblowers, employees and veterans advocates have misgivings about naming an entrenched member of VA leadership to the top administrative spot. They continue to be concerned that the same people who allowed misconduct, dangerous medical practices and retaliation against whistleblowers at hospitals like the scandal-plagued Tomah VA Medical Center are now being rewarded with promotions.
Tomah was the subject of congressional investigations for its opioid prescription policies that led to the death of a Marine veteran. Whistleblowers said they were retaliated against, and some patients who complained were treated terribly, according to multiple sources.
Brahm has served since October 2015 as acting director of the southwest Wisconsin hospital once described as “Candyland” for its practice of overprescribing painkillers.
A VA official said in a deposition that Brahm had received significant evidence of opiate abuse before the abuses came to light in January 2015. Brahm, who was the regional office’s nurse executive at the time, determined that there was no truth to the reports, according to the deposition.
On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson met with Shulkin. The Oshkosh Republican said he stressed his concerns about veterans’ care and whistleblower protections during the afternoon meeting with the nominee.
“The finest among us, our nation’s veterans, deserve the highest level of care,” Johnson said in a statement. “If Dr. Shulkin is confirmed, I will continue to use my position as Chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs to ensure that veterans have access to the health services they need, irresponsible VA employees are held accountable and VA whistleblowers are protected.”
In May, Johnson’s committee released an exhaustive report on the “culture of fear” that contributed to the deaths and maltreatment of veterans at Tomah.
“The Systemic Failures and Preventable Tragedies at the Tomah VA Medication Center” lays out a long list of misconduct, abuse, and retaliation charges over several years, and nearly as many red flags that critics say, had they been heeded, could have saved lives.
Shulkin doesn’t see a department in need radical change or widespread firings, even as his would-be boss once described the VA as “the most corrupt” federal agency. The nominee has no interest in privatizing the VA’s single-payer health care system.
“VA is a unique national resource that is worth saving, and I am committed to doing just that,” Shulkin said in prepared remarks obtained by Associated Press. “There will be far greater accountability, dramatically improved access, responsiveness and expanded care options, but the Department of Veterans Affairs will not be privatized under my watch.”
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