After more than a five-year wait, the Department of Veterans Affairs has a Senate-confirmed official leading its health care operations again.
Lawmakers on Thursday voted 66-23 to confirm Dr. Shereef Elnahal as the next VA under secretary for health.
“Now more than ever, the Department of Veterans Affairs needs a steady hand to guide the Veterans Health Administration,” said Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Montana, in a floor speech just before the vote.
Elnahal “has an impressive record of leading health care systems and health agencies,” he said. “But more importantly than that, he is committed to caring for the more than 9 million veterans currently in VA’s care.”
VA’s top health care post had been unfilled since early 2017, when Dr. David Shulkin stepped down from the postion to take over as secretary of the entire department. Since then, the job has been held by a series of temporary, unconfirmed executives.
Over the past five years, officials have convened several panels to find candidates for the post without success.
President Joe Biden nominated Elnahal in March. He currently serves as chief executive officer of University Hospital in Newark, New Jersey.
He received largely positive reviews from Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee members during his confirmation hearing in April, but his nomination has been stalled since May after Sen. Rick Scott, R-Florida, blocked an attempt to fast-track his appointment over general concerns about Biden’s nominees.
The move drew the ire of Democratic leaders and VA Secretary Denis McDonough, who said Elnahal will provide valuable help with the department’s electronic health records overhaul and ongoing review of medical facility infrastructure.
Elnahal previously served as VA’s assistant deputy under secretary for health for quality, safety and value from 2016–2018. During that time he co-founded the VHA Innovation Ecosystem, which focused on sharing best practices to improve veteran care.
During his confirmation hearing, Elnahal said one of his top priorities for the job will be improving recruiting and retention for clinical care positions at the Veterans Health Administration.
“The sacred health care mission of VA simply cannot be fulfilled without having people to do it, talented healthcare professionals who put the mission above all else,” he said. “So this is a major priority for me.”
With Thursday’s vote, the department now has four of its top five leadership roles confirmed by the Senate. The only vacancy is the under secretary for benefits.
Last week, Biden’s nominee for that post, Ray Jefferson, withdrew his name from consideration after a monthslong wait for action by the Senate. VA officials announced this week they have formed a new search commission to look for potential candidates.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.