Former Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin deserved to be fired — but not for the likely reason he was was actually ousted this week.
Trump announced his decision to replace Shulkin with Rear Admiral Ronny L. Jackson in a tweet on Wednesday. Jackson is best known as the White House physician who touted Trump’s health during a media briefing but has no experience running large government agencies.
The last remaining Obama-era appointee showed he was not ethically fit to serve the post after his chief of staff altered a federal record so Shulkin’s wife could attend a conference to Europe with him, according to Walter Shaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics, in a L.A. Times op-ed last month. Shulkin told a staffer with a six-figure salary to act as a personal travel concierge for his wife on the taxpayer’s dime. He then accepted free tickets to the women’s finals match at Wimbledon and lied to ethics investigators about his relationship with the person who gave him the tickets.
As promised, here is the case for terminating @SecShulkin. If a cabinet member can deceive an ethics official with impunity, it spells the end of the ethics program. I hope Members of Congress will read this piece and take appropriate action. https://t.co/XznWm6iv6Y
— Walter Shaub (@waltshaub) February 28, 2018
But it’s hard to believe the Trump administration cares much about the events that took place during that July 2016 trip, considering it still employs the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who is so ethically compromised foreign governments have considered exploiting his family’s business arrangements.
A number of other current and former Trump administration officials have also been caught up in ethics scandals including former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
As Shulkin himself wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times on Wednesday, the real reason he was removed was because he opposed efforts to privatize the V.A.
Historically, the V.A. has rightfully been characterized as a poorly run federal agency. The Phoenix V.A. in 2014, for instance, neglected suicidal veterans then retaliated against Brandon Coleman, an agency addiction therapist who blew the whistle. And a number of V.A. offices also reportedly concealed the long wait times for veterans to see doctor.
Shulkin noted in his op-ed how the V.A. improved under his watch, citing, among other things, the passage of an improved appeals process for veterans seeking disability benefits; improved trust; lowered veterans unemployment rates; reduced wait times; increased productivity; working closer with the private sector; and improved mental health care.
But Shulkin also claimed that the current administration viewed him as an obstacle to fulfilling its agenda of privatizing the V.A, which he said would reward “select people and companies with profits, even if it undermines care for veterans.”
Privatization of the agency has been a major goal of the Trump administration since the start. This is evidenced by the administration’s hiring of Darin Selnick to the White House’s Domestic Policy Council. According to a leaked document from the Office of Management and Budget that was published by Crooked Media in October, Selnick was brought on to push the privatization efforts.
The former U.S. Air Force captain spent four years between 2013 and 2017 working as senior veterans affairs adviser for Concerned Veterans for America, a libertarian dark money group tied to Charles and David Koch, which pushes for privatization of the V.A. system. He has also been vocal about his desire to privatize the system and reform the Veterans Choice Program that allows vets to seek care in the private sector.
Republicans recently tried pass legislation that would expand the Choice program by essentially shifting more than half of the $4 billion dedicated to improving the agency’s aging infrastructure and instead use the funds to offer veterans more private care, according to the Washington Post. While Shulkin backed the plan, Democrats argued it would divert money away from the agency, which desperately needed it and would push veterans out of the system. Ultimately, the plan was removed from the omnibus bill that was negotiated last week.
Even during his confirmation hearing, Shulkin vowed to resist efforts to privatize the system. Major veterans groups, including the American Legion, shared his views, worrying such efforts would deplete the amount of money available to veterans.
“The private sector, already struggling to provide adequate access to care in many communities, is ill-prepared to handle the number and complexity of patients that would come from closing or downsizing V.A. hospitals and clinics,” Shulkin wrote, singling out veterans suffering from mental health issues.
“But privatization leading to the dismantling of the department’s extensive health care system is a terrible idea,” he continued. “The department’s understanding of service-related health problems, its groundbreaking research and its special ability to work with military veterans cannot be easily replicated in the private sector.”