VA Secretary visits Durham to focus on patient care

Rooting out bad employees, higher scrutiny of new hires, online wait times, public-private partnerships among initiatives

Eamon Queeney—North State Journal
Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin

DURHAM – President Donald Trump’s pick to head the Department of Veterans Affairs visited a local VA Hospital in North Carolina on Friday as part of a nationwide effort to improve patient care and seek solutions to problems that have riddled veteran healthcare for years. Sec. David Shulkin, M.D. toured the VA facility in Durham just one day after joining President Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence to sign an executive order to add additional safeguards for VA whistleblowers, and transferring regulatory control to the states on VA construction projects. “We’ve had a very busy 100 days, and we’re working hard across the country to honor our commitment to our veterans,” Shulkin said while standing outside of the main lobby of the Durham Veterans Affairs Hospital. Several doctors and patients trickled in to the formal press conference local officials at the hospital arranged, perhaps to hear what the VA had in store under the new administration. Improving the medical system that has been troubled with reports of patient neglect and appointment backlogs was among Pres. Trump’s top campaign promises. “We’re going to make the VA great again and we’re going to do it by firing the corrupt and incompetent VA executives who let our veterans down,” Trump said a month before the election at a rally in front of battleship USS Wisconsin in Norfolk, Virginia. Shulkin, confirmed by the Senate in February, outlined that accountability would be among his top priorities as new head of the Department.”We are moving quickly to find that where there are bad employees, we root them out of the VA system, because we’re not going to tolerate employees that don’t match up to our values,” said Shulkin, joined at the podium by the Director of the Durham center, DeAnne Seekins. “But I will remind you – the vast majority of our employees are really among the best that we have in the country. I saw that today with just amazing dedication from employees here at this medical center.”In February, an incident at the Durham VA went viral when a Marine and his wife took photos of three patients inside the emergency room that she claimed were being neglected. Hospital officials conducted an internal investigation and reported that, based on surveillance footage, they felt the photos were misleading. One employee was removed from a patient care role. When pressed about the February incident, Shulkin appeared to stress that there are always two sides of the story, “we will not tolerate behaviors that are not acceptable, but there is due process.”And just yesterday, Pres. Trump signed an executive order that creates the an assistant secretary position that will advise and assist Shulkin to discipline or terminate any VA manager or employee who has “violated the public’s trust and failed to carry out his or her duties on behalf of Veterans.” The position will also assist the secretary in “recruiting, rewarding, and retaining high-performing employees”; and that it will be important, because currently the VA is also hurting on quantity of employees. Shulkin said that there are currently 45,000 job openings within the system, nationwide. “We need to get better and faster at hiring medical professionals. It is a very competitive environment out there,” said the Department head.Three days into his presidency, Pres. Trump signed an executive order that froze all government agency hires in an effort to evaluate the expansion of the federal government. The freeze was lifted on April 12. The Department of Veterans Affairs was the first agency to issue guidelines on how to proceed under the new administration: allowing managers to fill almost all vacancies related to veteran benefits and healthcare; however, keeping in place an approval process for nearly 5,000 senior-level positions. Durham is one of the fastest growing VA centers in the country. And as North Carolina continues to experience a population boom, including among retired veterans, Shulkin seemed excited that some of the forward actions he has discussed with the President and Vice-President are or will be implemented in the state. Shulkin said his Department is looking at unloading under-utilized properties, and moving capital assets to regions that are hemorrhaging patients, such as North Carolina. “This is one issue that the VA has identified for years and years and has not been swift or flexible enough to be able to do,” said Shulkin who was promoted from within the Department of Veterans Affairs, having served as the Under Secretary for Health since 2015, under former-Pres. Barack Obama.In direct patient services, the Department also announced an initiative early this month that allows veterans to access the average times patients are waiting to be seen in their local area, as well as patient satisfaction scores. “No other health system in the country has done that,” said Shulkin, “so there is no other hospital in North Carolina, other than the VAs, that you can take a look at what wait times are.”Shulkin hopes that initiatives like this one will help usher in a new model for federal hospitals, one that includes public-private partnerships like the one the Durham VA shares with Duke University Hospital – located directly across the street, and that allow veterans to be referred and accepted at private hospitals if their local VAs are backlogged.