WASHINGTON (AP) — Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said Tuesday he expects a spending boost in President Donald Trump's budget for veterans programs, escaping big-time proposed cuts slated for other domestic programs.
Speaking at an American Legion conference, Shulkin also indicated to reporters that he would seek "hundreds" more exemptions to a federal hiring freeze for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"There will be an increase in resources," he said, citing rising demand for VA services and a need to move quickly on a major overhaul of the department's health services to reduce long wait times.
"I'm confident this budget is going to reflect the president's commitment to deliver on his promise to make veterans' care better and stronger and to transform the VA," Shulkin said.
The 57-year-old physician, who previously served as VA's top health official under the Obama administration, addressed America's largest veterans' organization as it and other groups prepared to outline their spending wish-lists to Congress. Trump's preliminary budget blueprint seeks a surge in mostly military spending while slashing domestic programs and foreign aid as a whole by about 10 percent.
Major changes are already in the works, Shulkin said, including: Initiatives to combat the high rate of suicide among veterans, to be announced in the next two weeks; a House bill to increase employee accountability, which was introduced Tuesday; and a revamp this fall to a choice program aimed at allowing veterans to seek private care more easily in collaboration with the VA.
That change to the choice program, which was passed by Congress after a 2014 wait-time scandal, would ease restrictions on outside care. Currently, veterans may seek outside care only in cases where they had to wait more than 30 days for an appointment or would have to drive more than 40 miles to a facility.
"We don't need any more studies or commissions on how to fix the VA," Shulkin said, pledging to work with Congress and veterans' groups but noting that there were already more than 140 reports put together over recent years on improving the VA. "What we need to do is begin to get to work."
He said he was asking the White House to exempt hundreds more VA positions under the federal hiring freeze. The White House previously had agreed to exempt roughly 37,000 out of 45,000 VA vacancies, mostly in the health care area, but veterans' organizations and Democratic lawmakers there should be more exempted.
Shulkin said he would push for additional "small areas" of exemptions to help process disability benefits and operate veterans' cemeteries.
On employee accountability, Shulkin said he supported a bill introduced by Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, that would allow him to fire bad employees more easily.
"There are high expectations for us to make changes to the VA and the secretary needs to have authority," Shulkin said.
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