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VA Secretary David Shulkin in Helena

VA Secretary David Shulkin speaks in August 2017 at Helena College.

Thom Bridge,

Few in Congress are calling for Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin’s resignation in light of a travel scandal disclosed last week. That’s because there’s more on the line than the Trump appointee’s job, said U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.

Tester, the ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said those wanting to push Shulkin out also favor complete privatization of veterans’ health care, a move unpopular with most veterans’ groups, but pursued by Concerned Veterans of America, a group backed by the Koch brothers.

CVA advocates for expanding what’s known as the Choice Program, which allows veterans to seek private medical services when Veterans Affairs health services aren’t close by. The VA pays for those private medical services. Critics say expanding the Choice Program would siphon too much funding away from the VA, eventually starving it.

“Right now, what the veterans of this country need is a leadership team at the VA and in the White House who will help us scrap the Choice Program and improve access to quality VA health care," Tester said. "That means we need a secretary who works for our veterans, not for the Koch brothers.”

Shulkin has been under pressure after an investigation by VA’s inspector general, which found “serious derelictions” in the VA secretary’s travel expenses. Taxpayers covered the $4,000 airfare of Shulkin’s wife when she accompanied her husband on a European trip.

Shulkin’s chief of staff, Vivieca Wright Simpson, admitted doctoring emails to justify Shulkin’s wife accompanying him. Wright Simpson resigned Friday.

After the inspector general’s report was released last week, leading Republicans and Democrats on the Senate and House veterans’ affairs committees, including Tester, stopped short of calling on Shulkin to resign.

“Over the last year, we have been privileged to work closely with Dr. Shulkin on many pieces of legislation to improve the lives of veterans," the four committee leaders said in a joint statement. "We believe that public officials must be held to a higher standard, and whether intentional or not, misusing taxpayer dollars is unacceptable. We are still reviewing the full report, but after our briefing from VA Inspector General Mike Missal, we are disappointed by the details described in the IG report regarding the trip taken by Dr. Shulkin and other VA officials, and we hope that the secretary will fully address the IG’s findings. We need to continue the progress we have made and not allow distractions to get in the way of helping our veterans. We’re counting on Dr. Shulkin to actively address all of the allegations outlined in this report. Our veterans deserve no less.”

Shulkin announced last week that he would reimburse the government for his wife’s travel expenses. President Donald Trump’s administration has suffered a string of travel scandals, from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s underreported travel expenses, to Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price's use of taxpayer-funded private jet trips for government work. Price resigned last year.

Montana’s Republican Sen. Steve Daines said Monday he was disappointed in Shulkin, who had strong confirmation support by Republicans and Democrats in February 2017.

“The VA needs strong and consistent leadership,” Daines said. "An extraordinary degree of confidence was placed in Secretary Shulkin by two presidents and further by a near-unanimous confirmation vote by the U.S. Senate. This makes the allegations against Secretary Shulkin all the more disappointing. Our veterans can ill afford further failures in VA leadership. Misuse of taxpayer dollars is a serious abuse of the public trust, and if he cannot demonstrate he is worthy of the public trust he cannot provide the strong leadership our veterans need. However, it is at this time premature to determine if he has lost that trust.”

The Senate confirms Cabinet nominations, and Daines and Tester voted for Shulkin's appointment. The vote was unanimous.

Turnover at VA’s head office has been relentless in the past 12 years, with four Senate-confirmed secretaries and four acting secretaries holding the office. During that time Veterans Affairs has been scandal plagued and derelict in providing the health care benefits guaranteed to U.S. Armed Forces veterans.

There have been data breaches releasing personal information for more than 25 million veterans, multiple disease exposures from contaminated equipment, and the deaths of dozens of veterans who were waiting for appointments, which the VA tried to cover up.

If Shulkin leaves office, Daines said he would expect a replacement to share Shulkin’s balanced view of Veterans Affairs issues and not differ from Shulkin’s approach significantly. Veterans should expect consistency, Daines said.

“I expect strong and accountable leadership that will fight for the quality care our veterans deserve,” Daines said. “The failures of the VA over the past decade are not a result of turnover, but lack of accountability.”

Veterans groups like the American Legion and American Veterans called for Shulkin on Monday to remain in office. In Montana, Joe Parsetich, of Disabled American Veterans Montana, said a lot of work has been done to turn Veterans Affairs around in the past few years. He credits Shulkin for that progress, particularly in getting VA employees at the root of some of the department's worst dysfunction.

“Shulkin has discharged over a thousand employees found to be problematic in the system,” Parsetich said. He also credits Shulkin’s work with veterans’ affairs committees with getting seven bipartisan veterans bills passed in the past year.

Parsetich is a member of the Veterans Rural Health Advisory Committee, which advises Shulkin. He said Shulkin is a medical doctor, whose background brings a different approach to tackling the health care challenges facing the VA. Shulkin has succeeded where other secretaries have not, Parsetich said.

Monday night, the DAV called on Congress and President Trump to support Shulkin:

“We have not always agreed with the Secretary, but we believe he is a proven advocate for veterans — not special interest groups who openly advocate shrinking and dismantling the VA. Today, we offer our support for Secretary Shulkin and his vision for veterans’ health care, one that has bipartisan support in Congress and across the veteran service organization community. On behalf of DAV’s more than one million members, we ask the President and Congress to extend that same support for the work the Secretary has already done and for the sake of continuing the many efforts currently underway to reform the department.”