President-elect Donald J. Trump on Wednesday selected the head of the nation’s sprawling veterans health care system, Dr. David J. Shulkin, an appointee of President Obama, to become secretary of veterans affairs.
If confirmed, he will be the first secretary to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs who is not a veteran.
As the agency’s current under secretary for health, Dr. Shulkin oversees a vast health care system of 1,700 hospitals and clinics that serve nearly nine million veterans. In recent years, he has nearly doubled the amount of health care veterans that receive through private doctors.
On the campaign trail, Mr. Trump regularly criticized the department as being hopelessly corrupt and incompetent, leading many to expect that he would pick a harsh critic of veterans health care to run the agency.
Instead, he chose an experienced insider who was appointed by Mr. Obama in 2015 and told to cut wait times for care and to make the system more efficient.
“The Trump campaign made a big deal of what a sucking chest wound the V.A. was,” said Phillip Carter, an Iraq veteran who studies the agency for the Center for a New American Security, a research organization that focuses on issues for the military and veterans. “Then they realized how hard it would be to turn around and decided they needed to continue with the reforms that are already taking effect.”
Mr. Carter, who advised Hillary Clinton’s campaign on veterans issues, called Dr. Shulkin a smart choice, saying that he was among a very small group with the expertise to run a large and complicated health care system
“He knows the V.A.,” Mr. Carter said, “but he is not of the V.A. He comes from the private sector and knows how to blend private and public care.”
Before serving as an under secretary, Dr. Shulkin helped lead several private health care systems, including Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City and the University of Pennsylvania Health System.
Veterans groups who often opposed the drastic changes Mr. Trump proposed during the campaign generally supported the pick.
Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said his membership would have preferred a veteran running the department, but he added that Dr. Shulkin was well respected and the “best hope among candidates reported in the media” to continue overhauling the system.