ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Not all of President Trump's Cabinet nominees have been controversial. This afternoon, Dr. David Shulkin sat before a Senate committee to be confirmed as secretary of Veterans Affairs. Shulkin is one of just a handful of holdovers from the Obama administration. He was brought in to help reform the VA after a string of scandals two years ago. Since then, he's been the number three at the agency. Today he answered senators' questions about how he would lead the department.
NPR's Quil Lawrence covers veterans' affairs and joins us to discuss the hearing. Hi, Quil.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: What sorts of questions did senators have for the nominee?
LAWRENCE: Well, this was sort of a love fest. Given the atmosphere in Washington right now, that's quite remarkable, but the VA committees on the Hill are sort of known for being collegial. So they all asked him a lot of questions about ongoing reform at the VA. He's been involved in this for 18 months already. And almost every senator thanked him - began or ended by thanking him - for the work he's already done. They seemed eager to work with someone who's already into the nitty gritty.
So they were asking about things like wait times, over-prescription of opiates at VA, lots of really deep in the weeds questions about VA funding. One senator told Shulkin he's going to be held to sort of a higher standard because he doesn't need any time to get up to speed at the VA's - on the VA's issues, and Shulkin said he welcomed that.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DAVID SHULKIN: I don't have a lot of patience. And I am going to be serious about making these changes and regaining that trust. And if I don't do it, I should be held accountable, and you should replace me.
SHAPIRO: Quil, the word privatization has been thrown around a lot related to the VA. Was that a big issue today?
LAWRENCE: It came up, and mostly with people saying that they don't intend to privatize the VA. The most maybe acrimonious part of the hearing was kind of an exchange between Senator Sanders of Vermont and Thom Tillis of North Carolina. Sanders and another Democrat were warning that there are lobbyists and advisers in the White House who are pushing privatization at the VA and elsewhere, and Tillis shot back with a little bit of a show of hands if anyone in the audience was in favor of privatization.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
THOM TILLIS: Anyone in this body who tells you that there is a movement afoot to privatize the VA has either been misled or they're trying to mislead you.
LAWRENCE: And then he went on to say to Shulkin, I think you're great and I'm going to vote for you.
SHAPIRO: President Trump last week ordered a federal hiring freeze. Is that of concern at the VA especially in the context of long waits for care?
LAWRENCE: Yeah. I mean, the VA - this is quite a remarkable statistic - has 45,000 job openings. And Dr. Shulkin said today that he'd been assured by the White House that 37,000 of those jobs are exempt from this hiring freeze because they're front-line health care jobs. As Shulkin said, he's satisfied with that, but it does leave open the question about some of these other 8,000 openings which might be people who are - which would include people who are, say, reviewing benefits appeals and things like that, and that is part of the backlog right there.
SHAPIRO: I know veterans groups have also been concerned about Trump's executive order on immigration. They're asking whether it includes Iraqis who worked alongside American forces, some of whom were promised visas by U.S. troops. Any update on that issue?
LAWRENCE: There's a lot of confusion. I mean, vets have been really out front on this issue. Many of them feel like they personally gave their word to an interpreter in Iraq in the war - in a war zone who was helping them, conceivably saving their lives. They promised them you'll get a visa if you help me, and then the promise hasn't come through.
Now, I've also heard plenty of voices from vets who say that they're in favor of limiting immigration, and vets did lead toward Trump during the election. But from the State Department I've heard that it's going on normal, this visa program, from the Department of Homeland Security said they're doing it case by case. So it's very confusing. I spoke to an Iraqi stuck in Doha today. He can't go back to Baghdad, and he doesn't know if he can come to America.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Quil Lawrence. Thanks, Quil.
LAWRENCE: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.