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—Gideon Grudo

David Shulkin, the freshly minted Secretary of Veterans Affairs, said without congressional support, his agency’s claims backlog will likely “grow.”

Speaking during a live YouTube town hall event Feb. 24 (while the video is no longer available, its transcript is), Shulkin answered questions from moderator Bill Rausch, executive director of Got Your 6. The town hall comes less than two weeks after Shulkin’s unanimous Senate confirmation on Feb. 13. About 500-750 people were watching the live feed Friday afternoon.

“The appeals issue is clearly unacceptable to us,” Shulkin said without getting specific in response to a question from the wife of a 70-year-old disabled veteran who’d been waiting years for his claim to clear. “Unless we get legislative changes in how we do appeals, we’re not going to be able to fix this the way we want to.”

Beyond appeals, Shulkin said he wants to repair the Choice Program, which a Jan. 30 report from the VA Office of Inspector General found resulted in “several barriers” for veterans seeking medical care.

“Primary barriers included cumbersome authorization and scheduling procedures, and inadequate provider networks,” the report reads. “Before receiving an appointment with a network provider, veterans had to first navigate through Choice’s authorizing and processing procedures.”

Shulkin called the program “very confusing,” and added the VA knows “what needs to change.”

“When you have seven different ways of doing something,” he said, “you have seven different sets of rules.”

Asked about potential additions to the agent orange presumptive list, including lung disease and hypertension, Shulkin said the VA is “getting close” to modifications on the list. Citing multiple, long-term, and new studies that should be headed to his desk in “the next several weeks,” Shulkin said he is “anxious” to get them because people “have been waiting too long to get those answers.”

Shulkin also addressed the bad reputation the VA has adopted in recent years.

“VA had a complete failure in the confidence veterans had in us,” he said. “We’ve been making true progress in that regard. No one on my team is satisfied with where we are.”

In order to bring about that change, Shulkin said the VA will be reevaluating current systems, listening to veterans, and working with community partners. Specifically in regards to the VA’s homelessness issue, Shulkin mentioned he’s planning to meet with governors around the country.

“One of the topics we will be talking about is how we can do more together at the state and federal government level to address veteran homelessness,” he said. “You will continue to see that be a priority for us.”

Finally, he urged the importance of less negative press about the VA, saying a “constant barrage of negative stories against the VA” hurts veterans, and may result in veterans refraining from seeking VA’s services.