White House officials held their first listening session on problems with the Department of Veterans Affairs on Tuesday, but without inviting prominent members of the veterans community to the event.

Officials from the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans and the Veterans of Foreign Wars said they were not invited to the morning event and did not know about it until it was announced late Monday night, as part of the White House's routine schedule outline.

Other prominent veterans groups were surprised Tuesday morning by news of the event, and unsure who was invited to take part in the discussion.

White House officials initially did not release any other details of the event, other than the meeting followed a similar listening session with President Trump and county sheriffs discussing local law enforcement issues. A press pool event to take pictures of the meeting was cancelled shortly before the veterans meeting began.

As news spread of the meeting, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said White House officials told him the meeting was with health care executives, and that veterans groups would be invited for a similar session later. 

In the afternoon, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer released a statement saying the meeting included Tiffany Smiley, the wife of a veteran who was blinded by a roadside bomb in Iraq, Isaac Perlmutter, chairman of Marvel Entertainment, and "health care experts" discussing "actions are necessary to improve health care access and quality for our heroic veterans." 


In early January, at the same news conference where he announced Dr. David Shulkin as his pick to take over as the new VA secretary, Trump said he would set up an advisory panel to discuss department reforms, particularly in health care offerings.

"We have some of the great hospitals of the world going to align themselves with us on the Veterans Administration, like the Cleveland Clinic, like the Mayo Clinic," he said.

"We're gonna set up a group. These are hospitals that have been the top of the line, the absolute top of the line. And they're going to get together with their great doctors … and we're gonna straighten out the VA for our veterans."

Several individuals who have advised Trump on military and veterans issues traveled with him to Florida on Monday during a visit to U.S. Central Command headquarters, but it’s unclear if they traveled back to the White House with him.

Trump’s actions so far on veterans issues have caused concerns among some advocates, particularly his comments that he would consider privatizing some VA services if it could mean a more efficient bureaucracy.

But Shulkin, in his confirmation hearing last week, promised that he did not support wholesale privatization of department operations, but instead would favor community partnerships and streamlining of programs that reimburse veterans for outside care.

Trump officials met with veterans groups for a listening session early in the presidential transition process, but the president-elect did not meet with any of the major veterans group representatives.

He did speak at both the American Legion's and VFW's annual conventions during the presidential campaign, and has repeatedly promised to fix the "broken" VA system.

Moran said he hopes that Shulkin's confirmation — expected in the next few weeks, since few senators have offered any objections — will help bring the voices of veterans advocates into the conversation in the weeks to come.

"The sooner he can visit with the veterans service organization, the better," he said. "Their input will be valuable, and they have influence with members of Congress.

"We need to all work together."


 

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com.