Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin toured the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center Friday, met with administrators and conducted interviews of hospital staff concerning the late February viral Facebook post showing a veteran, exhausted, lying on a floor after having waited hours for medical attention.
Nominated by President Donald Trump, Shulkin was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the ninth Secretary of Veterans Affairs on Feb. 13. The only holdover from the Obama administration in Trump’s Cabinet, Shulkin was the Veterans Affairs Under Secretary for Health for the 18 months prior to his current post.
Shulkin on Friday addressed Trump’s Thursday executive order creating a new VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection.
“We’re looking for Congress to pass legislation to allow us to do the things that we need to do — hire the right people at the VA and when those few that deviate from our values are identified, to make sure that they’re no longer with the VA,” Shulkin said.
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Trump’s executive order calls for any future head of a new Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection to report directly to Shulkin.
The collection of photos posted on Facebook of veterans waiting hours in Durham for medical treatment touched on a nationwide concern, a large collective nerve and frequent hot-button issue for debates — extended waiting times endured by U.S. veterans at their local VA medical facilities.
“We were of course very concerned when we saw the reports and saw the video. It is not acceptable for us to treat our veterans with anything but the most respect. In this case, an investigation did go on and appropriate disciplinary action was rendered,” Shulkin said.
Hanna McMenamin, the wife of a former U.S. Marine being treated at the hospital on Friday, Feb. 24 posted the images of the exhausted veteran on the floor which was subsequently shared over 142,000 times and garnered over 18,000 online comments.
Shulkin said he spoke with Durham VA Medical Center Director DeAnne Seekins about the “specific disciplinary actions related to the incident” and talked to employees about their experiences and issues of concern with the goings-on at the Durham VA.
“Now, I’m not going to go into the specifics of that because our employees have privacy,” Shulkin said. “But I will say, and it’s important for our employees to hear, we will not tolerate behaviors that are not acceptable. But, there is due process.”
Shulkin said the Trump administration is moving toward the fulfillment of a campaign promise for the creation of a hotline for veterans to call and report complaints about their health care and health care providers.
“The president did make that commitment and we are hard at work to establish that hotline,” said Shulkin, a physician himself. “That would be a White House hotline ... I think I would look for that in the early summer.”
In explaining any possible perceived delay in the creation of such a hotline, Shulkin said the White House “put out a contract” to equip the hotline “essentially, with state-of-the-art technology.”
Shulkin said, that he and Seekins also discussed the areas of Durham VAMC which consistently record the longest wait times.
“That area was in primary care, where they’re looking to hire four additional primary care physicians,” Shulkin said. “I made sure that they are aggressively recruiting them.”
Seekins, who stood next to Shulkin while he spoke, nodded along to Shulkin’s praise and acknowledgment that Durham’s VA is one of the fastest growing medical facilities in the country with a recent average of 900 new patients per month.
Last week, Trump signed an extension of the Veterans Choice Program, which allows vets to seek care in their own communities, outside the VA system. Shulkin credited Trump’s leadership and bipartisan support for the program in Congress: “We’ve made terrific progress in the last three months. Just last week, the president signed an authorization to extend our Choice Program so veterans can continue to get care in the community.”
Standing at a podium in Durham Shulkin said, “in this region” there has been a recent 67 percent increase in veterans’ opting to pursue private sector medical treatment through the Veterans Choice Program.
He briefly paused.
“Which is a good thing,” Shulkin added.