President Joe Biden has nominated a former New Jersey health official and current hospital executive to fill the top health role at the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has been vacant since 2017.
Biden tapped Shereef Elnahal, who has been the president and CEO of University Hospital in Newark, New Jersey, since 2019, to be the VA’s under secretary for health, the White House announced Wednesday.
The under secretary for health, the official who runs the VA’s $60 billion, 9 million patient health system, has been without a Senate-confirmed appointee since the beginning of the Trump administration, when David Shulkin stepped down to become the VA secretary.
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Since then, the VA has launched multiple search committees to find a new leader for the Veterans Health Administration. Most recently, the VA announced in October that it had set up a new search committee to replace the one launched at the beginning of the Biden administration after officials “received information that there may have been some irregularities in the consideration of the previous slate of candidates,” the department said then.
Elnahal previously served at the VA from 2016 to 2018 as the assistant deputy under secretary for health for quality, safety and value.
In between his last job at the VA and his current hospital job, Elnahal served as New Jersey’s health commissioner. He also worked on Biden’s VA team during the presidential transition in 2020.
The White House statement on Elnahal’s nomination credits him with leading his hospital through the coronavirus pandemic and setting up one of New Jersey’s first COVID-19 vaccination sites, as well as having “overseen improvements in care quality and patient safety at the hospital.”
In addition to the health job, the White House announced Wednesday that Biden will nominate Ray Jefferson to be the VA’s under secretary of benefits.
Jefferson, who would lead the Veterans Benefits Administration if he’s confirmed, is the president of a Singapore-based consultancy group.
During the Obama administration, Jefferson served as the assistant secretary for veterans’ employment and training at the Department of Labor.
A West Point graduate, Jefferson lost all five fingers on his left hand attempting to protect other soldiers from a hand grenade detonating prematurely during training while he was team leader of an Army Special Forces A-Team.
The White House announced the two key VA nominees, as well as eight commissioners for a committee to review VA infrastructure, as Biden leans into veterans issues during the second year of his presidency.
The president traveled to Texas on Tuesday to urge Congress to pass a pair of bills intended to help veterans exposed to toxins during their time in the military. The trip came after Biden also dedicated a chunk of his State of the Union to pledge to do more to help veterans suffering from ailments related to burn pits.
Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., who is responsible for shepherding VA nominees through the confirmation process, said in a statement on the nominees that he looks “forward to reviewing these individuals’ qualifications to ensure they are each up to the task to deliver veterans their earned health care and benefits.”
“Veterans and their families deserve a fully-staffed leadership team at the department, which is why I’m glad the Biden administration answered my call to fill these critical positions,” Tester said.
— Rebecca Kheel can be reached at r[email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.
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