VA undersecretary David Shulkin would be the first non-veteran to head the Department of Veterans Affairs

President-elect Donald Trump picked VA undersecretary David Shulkin to head the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. An accomplished medical doctor, Shulkin would be the first non-veteran to head the VA.

That’s not a deal-breaker for some local veterans who say they like what they hear so far about Shulkin and want to learn more.

When veteran Tom Pridell of Macedon is seen Saturday at 2:30 p.m. on “The VA & Veterans Update” program on public access Finger Lakes Television, Shulkin will be the main topic. Pridell will host the show, which was launched by Korean War veteran Ralph Calabrese when the Canandaigua VA Medical Center was threatened with closure in 2003. Calabrese of Canandaigua hosted the program for most years since then, and Pridell said he is honored to keep the ball rolling.

This summer Pridell was named commander of Chapter 4 of the DAV (Disabled American Veterans) in Canandaigua. A disabled Marine Corps veteran, Pridell is also involved with a number of other veterans organizations and is chairman of Veterans Supporting Veterans. Fellow Marine Corps veteran Gene Simes, who also leads local and national efforts to support vets, said Shulkin will have his work cut out for him and veterans will keep him on task with what needs to be done.

Pridell, Simes and other local vets said they oppose privatizing VA services and want to see the VA instead expanded to offer more care directly to vets. Controversy over privatizing the VA and the VA’s Choice Program will be among the topics Pridell plans to address with a new VA chief coming on. The Choice Program was enacted in response to a crisis several years ago involving long wait times veterans experienced before being seen by a VA provider. The program has allowed veterans to seek care at non-VA hospitals at government expense.

Shulkin has been in charge of that program since his June 2015 appointment as undersecretary. His support for the plan is likely to be the center of his Senate hearings.

Veteran suicide rates and problems with the Veterans Crisis Line are also issues the new VA secretary needs to tackle, said Pridell.

If Shulkin is confirmed, he will lead the government's second-largest agency that serves millions of veterans and has nearly 370,000 employees and an annual budget of about $167 billion.

Nationally, veterans leaders are mixed about Trump’s pick.

"We're pleased with this decision," said Joe Chenelly, national executive director of AMVETS. "We've been saying all along continuity is important at the VA, and Dr. Shulkin definitely understands the problems at the VA."

Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said his group will have tough questions for Shulkin. The organization is concerned about the department being led by a non-veteran.

"He's going to have to explain why he is best-suited for this job," Rieckhoff said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

 

Keep up with “The VA & Veteran Update”

The program airs on Finger Lakes Television at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and repeats at certain times during the weeks following. Finger Lakes Television is an independent public access cable TV station. The program can be accessed on Time Warner Cable Ch 12. Details: http://fingerlakestv.org/