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Trump ousts his V.A. secretary, opening the door to privatize the agency

David Shulkin will be replaced by Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson.

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin was dismissed by Trump Wednesday. CREDIT: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin was dismissed by Trump Wednesday. CREDIT: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Adding to the long list of recent staff departures and dismissals, President Donald Trump fired Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin Wednesday and announced that he would be nominating Rear Admiral Ronny L. Jackson to replace him.

Shulkin was the only holdover from the Obama era in Trump’s cabinet, having been appointed in 2015 to lead the V.A.’s health system. His replacement is the current White House physician who previously lauded the president’s health, but has no experience running a major bureaucratic agency.

Shulkin’s tenure as V.A. secretary had reportedly been in peril for months. In February, his chief of staff resigned after being accused of “serious derelictions” in expenses during a 10-day trip to Europe in 2017 — including improperly accepting tickets to the Wimbledon tennis championship. Later in February, reports surfaced that senior aides within the V.A. were actively conspiring to have him removed.

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But the major controversy within the V.A. centers around the Trump administration’s plans to offer veterans more privatized medical care at the expense of taxpayers. During his confirmation hearing, Shulkin vowed to resist any privatization efforts, which had been a Trump campaign promise.

“V.A. is a unique national resource that is worth saving,” Shulkin told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee last February during his confirmation hearing. “The Department of Veterans Affairs will not be privatized under my watch.”

During the 2016 presidential election, Trump labeled the V.A. “the most corrupt agency in the United States.” But after he won the presidential election, major veterans groups banded together to ask Trump to keep Obama’s secretary, Robert A. McDonald.

“We all want McDonald,” Joe Chenelly, executive director of Amvets, told the New York Times in December 2016. “He has a good business mind, he is experienced and we feel we can trust him.” Trump replaced him anyway

Democratic lawmakers warned Wednesday night that Shulkin’s removal paved the way for Trump to move forward with his goal of privatizing the agency. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said the removal was “a troubling step towards the Trump Administration’s ultimate goal of V.A. privatization,” while Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said that “the struggle at the Veterans Administration is about Trump’s desire to privatize the VA and his belief that Secretary David Shulkin is not moving fast enough in that direction.”

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Veterans groups have also been adamantly opposed to privatization. “We can’t see the number of veterans that VA sees on a regular basis if we’re going to pay the same rates that other health care industries pay in the community,” Verna Jones, executive director for the American Legion, said earlier in March. “One of the things we’re most concerned about is an increased contracting out, when we should be able to do that on VA campuses that will deplete the amount of money that’s available to see veterans.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs is the government’s second-largest agency. It is responsible for more than 1,700 health facilities and 9 million military veterans.