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VA chief quietly changing face of department

(AP Photo)

PHOENIX — Modernizing a federal agency has been a process, but one that VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin is navigating successfully.

“We’ve taken law that haven’t been changed since the 1930s and now we’ve modernized the approach,” Veterans Affairs Secretary Dr. David Shulkin told KTAR 92.3 FM’s Arizona’s Morning News on Wednesday.

He took over the department in February.

“Veterans can get decisions on disability claims and appeals” much faster and with less stress and confusion over finding the proper channels, Shulkin said.

Speedier response time can be directly attributed to the passage of the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act.

After passing both chambers, President Donald Trump signed the reform bill into law last week.

“Old practices of hiring and firing, old laws on how to get veterans benefits. This (issue) has spanned multiple administrations,” Shulkin said.

“We’ve had five major pieces of legislation … total bipartisan support.”

Another of those pieces of legislation put former Phoenix VA whistleblower Brandon Coleman in the federal government’s new Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection.

Coleman, who had been an addiction counselor at the Phoenix facility, was placed on administrative leave for nearly two years after calling out the hospital for mismanagement of suicidal patients in 2015.

He later fought the office for not protecting whistleblowers and retaliating against them, the latter an accusation that would be supported by an Office of Accountability review.

“Having people like Brandon, who have gone through this and tried to share information but it’s been difficult to get that information to the right people, having him (and other whistleblowers) as part of the office … making sure they can comfortably come forth with information … that’s the whole purpose of this office,” Shulkin said.

Over a half-million veterans have a more immediate need: “We have over 500,000 veterans in the path of (Tropical Storm Harvey), Shulkin said. “Our major medical centers are open.”

He added that hundreds of staff were working and the centers were well-stocked.

“We will be there for them.”

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