President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a news conference in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York on January 11, 2017.

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Donald Trump had pledged to overhaul the Department of Veterans Affairs

The announcement means Trump has chosen nominees for 20 of his 21 Cabinet posts

CNN  — 

President-elect Donald Trump has tapped David Shulkin to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, he announced Wednesday.

“I appointed today the head secretary of the Veterans Administration, David Shulkin,” Trump said during his news conference at Trump Tower in New York. “We’ll do a news release in a little while, I’ll tell you about David, he’s fantastic. He’s fantastic. He will do a truly great job. One of the commitments I’ve made is that we’re going to straighten out the whole situation for our veterans.”

Shulkin is the VA’s current undersecretary for health, a position in which he oversaw more than 1,700 health care sites across the United States.

Before joining the VA, Shulkin was president and CEO of the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City and president of the Morristown Medical Center.

He was also the chief medical officer of the University of Pennsylvania Health System.

The announcement means Trump has chosen nominees for 20 of his 21 Cabinet posts – with the position of secretary of agriculture left to fill.

Veterans’ care advocates had said they’d seen clear signs of progress and had lobbied Trump to keep current VA Secretary Robert McDonald in the post.

Trump had pledged on the campaign trail to dramatically overhaul the VA. In elevating a current Obama administration appointee, it’s not clear whether those plans have changed.

After joining the VA in 2015, Shulkin – who is not a veteran – pushed an initiative to expand nurses’ authority to provide care, part of an effort to reduce the VA’s backlog.

“My number one imperative is to address the access issue among veterans,” he told The Washington Post in 2016. “What we know about American medicine is that our supply of health-care professionals is not equally distributed. In rural areas, we have severe shortages. I’ve seen firsthand how difficult it is to recruit to some of the areas where our veterans live. We have a shortage of both nurses and physicians. We are recruiting thousands of doctors and advanced-practice nurses.”

Trump said in a statement after announcing Shulkin’s pick in his news conference that Shulkin will “lead the turnaround” of the VA.

“Sadly our great veterans have not gotten the level of care they deserve, but Dr. Shulkin has the experience and the vision to ensure we will meet the healthcare needs of every veteran,” Trump said in the statement. “Dr. Shulkin is an incredibly gifted doctor who is using his elite talents for medicine to care for our heroes, and Americans can have faith he will get the job done right.”

In a statement, Shulkin said he is “eager to reform” the veterans’ health care agency.

“President-elect Trump’s commitment to caring for our veterans is unquestionable, and he is eager to support the best practices for care and provide our Veterans Affairs’ teams with the resources they need to improve health outcomes. We are both eager to begin reforming the areas in our Veterans Affairs system that need critical attention, and do it in a swift, thoughtful and responsible way,” Shulkin said.

The group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America’s founder and CEO Paul Rieckhoff said in a statement he is “optimistic” about Shulkin’s nomination, adding that he “has been a trusted partner of IAVA at VA.”

But he noted that Shulkin is not a veteran.

“His selection is unprecedented. Our membership overwhelmingly supported the selection of a veteran for this critical leadership position,” Rieckhoff said.

“Dr. Shulkin’s service as Under Secretary is respected by the entire veterans community. He is a committed leader and is our best hope among candidates reported in the media to maintain the momentum created by Secretary McDonald to reform the VA,” he said. “We look forward to his confirmation hearing and to providing unique counsel to the President-elect, Congress and the media during the confirmation process and throughout the transition. In particular, we look forward to seeing to what extent the President-elect and Dr. Shulkin plan to expand privatization at VA, which veterans nationwide continue to overwhelmingly oppose.”