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Ousted Veterans Affairs Head Warns of Privatization Push

  • Obama holdover Shulkin says he didn’t resign from post at VA

  • Trump has tapped White House physician to run massive dept

David Shulkin, removed days ago as Secretary of Veterans Affairs, said political appointees engineered his ouster as they push for “more aggressive” changes to how the sprawling department is run.

“I did not resign,” Shulkin said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” In a separate interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” he said that “There would be no reason for me to resign. I made a commitment, I took an oath, and I was here to fight for our veterans.”

Shulkin said he wasn’t asked to submit a resignation letter, and did not write one.

The manner of Shulkin’s departure -- a resignation or a firing -- may have implications for how President Donald Trump can fill the position.

Trump announced Shulkin’s ouster Thursday in a Twitter message, in which he said he was nominating White House physician Ronny L. Jackson to head the department, which is second in size only to the Defense Department.

Shulkin has warned that service members and their families could see a decrease in care if the agency goes ahead with plans to broaden its use of the private sector.

‘Brutal’ Struggle

The Veterans Administration operates 145 hospitals, 300 veterans’ centers and more than 1,200 outpatient sites, according to a fact sheet on the department’s website. Veterans can visit non-VA health-care facilities if they face delays or travel burdens, though Shulkin has warned that the program to pay for it is projected to run out of funding in May.

In a New York Times op-ed published on March 28, Shulkin said that he was fired after losing a “brutal power struggle” by balking at proposals for privatizing VA care. The effort is being pushed by Trump appointees and a group called Concerned Veterans of America that’s backed by billionaire right-wing Republican donors Charles and David Koch.

Senator Bernie Sanders said Sunday on CNN that Shulkin’s ouster was part of a “massive effort” by the Trump administration to privatize federal government operations. The Independent senator from Vermont, a member of the Senate veterans affairs committee, said he’ll do anything he can to not approve a nominee who plans to privatize the VA.

‘Difficult Environment’

Shulkin said he believes the best way to improve the Veterans Administration is to work closely with Congress and with veterans groups. “I’ve always had a very good relationship with President Trump,” Shulkin said, adding that political appointees created a “difficult environment.”

Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin, said on “Meet the Press” the president’s habit of firing people via Twitter could make it more difficult to recruit talented workers for other posts in the administration.

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster were both fired via Twitter in March after policy disagreements with the president. Shulkin said he had a heads-up from White House Chief of Staff John Kelly shortly before Trump’s tweet landed.

“The president does need to understand the effect it has on attracting other people,” Johnson said.

Johnson said, though, that presidents “do deserve and have advisers that actually agree with them on policies,” and that an Inspector General’s report on Shulkin’s travel expenses was “pretty troubling.”

Wimbledon Tickets

Shulkin was chided in a report on a July 2017 trip to Europe with other VA officials. The government covered the cost of airfare for his wife, who is a dermatologist in private practice, and the couple improperly accepted tickets to watch tennis at Wimbledon.

Shulkin later reimbursed the costs in question. But he pushed back vigorously on NBC against any impropriety or ethical violations.

“I do not believe that there was any misuse of government funds,” he said adding that a statement he prepared on the topic was removed from the VA website.

Other Trump Cabinet members have come under fire for their spending practices. Former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned amid several investigations into his use of taxpayer-funded jets.

“Highly Trained”

Trump has called Jackson “highly trained and qualified,” but there are questions whether he’s prepared to go from an office with about two dozen employees to the sprawling VA, which has more than 370,000 employees.

Jackson is a Navy rear admiral who has served as the personal physician for Trump’s two predecessors, Obama and George W. Bush. He entered the public spotlight in January when, in reporting on Trump’s physical, said the president had “incredibly good genes” and if he had eaten a healthier diet “might live to be 200 years old.”

In addition to providing medical care for more than 9 million veterans and their families, the VA administers programs to help them with education and buying homes, and oversees more than 130 national cemeteries. There are an estimated 20 million veterans in the U.S., though not all request services from the department.

The VA is the second largest government department behind the Defense Department. For the 2019 budget, Trump has proposed almost $200 billion for the department, with more than a third goes to medical care and more than half is for veterans benefits like disability payments, education and home loan guarantees.

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