WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shuklin said he's tired of the constant "berating" of his department and thinks the negative reports may be hurting veterans access to care.
"It breaks down their confidence in the system," the new Cabinet secretary said in a department podcast released Friday morning. "I worry there are people who need help who don't come to us because they hear this narrative in the community.
"I'm looking for a fair and accurate balance, and I really believe it is time we stop the constant berating on VA, by public officials, by the media, and everyone else. We need to join together with a singular commitment to making this a better organization."
The comments from Shulkin, who was sworn in 10 days ago, run counter to the message being put out by President Trump, who spent much of his campaign last year labeling the department as a bureaucratic mess.
At a Florida rally on Feb. 17, Trump again promised major changes at the department, saying that "our veterans have been very, very sadly treated" and "our system and our country has let down our veterans."
Shulkin's comments, which did not mention Trump, echo similar assertions made by his predecessor over the last two years.
Former VA Secretary Bob McDonald, picked to lead the department in the wake of the 2014 wait times scandal, promised reforms and a more customer-friendly focus during his tenure at the department, but also repeatedly pushed back against the public narrative that VA services were broken or failing.
Shulkin said in the recent interview that he worries the negative public perception of VA is also hurting the department’s workforce.
"When we make mistakes, we deserve to be held accountable. And I’m not looking to hide our mistakes," he said.
"But this constant berating that VA is filled with unethical people, people that are doing things they shouldn’t do, it’s really painting a picture that frankly is a disservice to the hundreds of thousands of our employees who come to work because they believe in care and have a passion for serving veterans."
Shulkin has previously promised increased accountability in the VA workforce and fast firings of employees found engaged in improper or criminal acts.
But he called called the focus on past VA mistakes "an old story" that the public should move past.
"I’m disappointed that there seems to be an obsession with finding our failings," he said. "We are a large organization, we deal with serious problems, day in and day out. There are always going to be difficult circumstances and failings when you have such a large organization dealing with such problems."
Shulkin, who previously served as the head of VA health services under McDonald and President Barack Obama, is the first non-veteran in American history to serve as the head of veterans programs.
The full podcast with Shulkin is available on the department’s website.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.