WASHINGTON — Amid the turmoil of a new administration, officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs managed to get through 2017 with relatively little distraction and political drama.
They haven’t been as lucky in 2018.
The past six weeks for VA have included a Republican senator publicly blasting Secretary David Shulkin as a liar, a report that White House officials have considered firing a top deputy, the leak of an inspector general report condemning Shulkin for misuse of government travel, and no answers to a pair of lingering vacancies in top department leadership roles.
On Tuesday, about 300 union workers rallied outside VA headquarters (part of a series of events nationwide) to protest plans that would push more veterans health care to private-sector doctors. The event featured old arguments from labor leaders against Trump policy proposals but a new visual sign of anger and frustration right at the doorstep of the embattled bureaucracy.
On Wednesday, the inspector general’s office is expected to formally release its report criticizing Shulkin for accepting Wimbledon tickets and using taxpayer funds for his wife’s airfare. When the Washington Post first broke the story last fall, Shulkin and his supporters dismissed the issue as non-news and predicted an investigation would clear his name.
Meanwhile, more than a year after Shulkin took over the top role, he has been unable to finalize plans for one of his top policy priorities (and one of Trump’s biggest campaign promises): overhauling the department’s community medical programs to make it easier for veterans to seek health care outside the VA.
Lawmakers are worried the new series of scandals may make that work nearly impossible to finish.
“It is no secret that disorder and chaos frequently emanate from the president and throughout his administration, and the prospect that veterans could be negatively impacted due to that disorder is extremely disappointing,” said Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn. and ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
Officials from Concerned Veterans for America, which has been largely complimentary towards Trump and Shulkin, said that administration officials “should be focused on passing legislation that increases health choices for veterans and which better integrates the VA with community providers … we hope that these current distractions don’t slow progress towards that goal.”
Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., has pushed forward in recent days with community care overhaul legislation passed by his committee late last year.
The plan differs somewhat from guidelines for VA health care reforms released by the White House last month, in an effort to clarify what lawmakers lamented were mixed messages coming from Shulkin’s office. No timetable has been set for consideration or amendments to the measure.
Meanwhile, while conversations on that plan between VA and congressional leaders continue, department officials are readying their response to the IG report. In a statement Tuesday, VA spokesman Curt Cashour said that Shulkin has been open and honest about his public travel.
“That said, accountability and transparency are important values at VA under President Trump, and we look forward to seeing the report.”
VA officials declined to respond to a separate report from the Washington Post claiming White House officials are on the verge of firing VA Deputy Secretary Thomas Bowman due to conflicts with other administration staffers. White House officials did not respond to requests for comment.
And the department has repeatedly dismissed concerns that the top posts at the Veterans Health Administration and Veterans Benefits Administration remain unfilled, a year after Trump’s inauguration.
At the union rally Tuesday, led by American Federation of Government Employees officials, several Democratic congressmen decried the state of VA leadership as adversarial and dangerous to the health of the system. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. and a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, accused Trump of working to undermine the system instead of strengthening it.
On Thursday, Shulkin is scheduled to appear before Congress to answer questions about the president’s fiscal 2019 budget request and rebut those accusations. But that’s only if he can get past questions on all the other controversies, too.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.