Leading veterans service organizations met Tuesday to mount a joint response in the face of a troubling inspector general report alleging “serious derelictions” in expensing on the part of the Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and his top staff during a Europe trip last July, multiple sources told Task & Purpose.
The groups — including the largest VSOs, dubbed the “big six” — were prepared to call for the Trump administration to retain the embattled VA secretary, but have so far held off on sending a formal letter. (That same afternoon, USA Today reported that the VA’s top official “received assurances” from the White House that his position at the department is, for the time being, safe.)
Based on the recent statements from leading veterans service organizations, the mistakes detailed in the 97-page report appear to be overshadowed by concerns of a power struggle within the VA — one allegedly perpetrated by pro-privatization operatives within the department, with the goal of ousting Shulkin. And it’s that final point, that may have caused veterans groups to gather.
Put another way, the rallying cry for Shulkin amounts to: Better the VA chief we know…
Related: VA OIG: Shulkin And His Staff Committed ‘Serious Derelictions’ In Expensing Europe Trip »
A federal institution with a proposed budget of nearly $200 billion for fiscal year 2019, the Department of Veterans Affairs oversees the largest integrated health care system in the United States, and there are concerns among veterans organizations, advocates, and lawmakers, that it’s a ripe target for special interest groups seeking to turn a profit through privatizing aspects of the Veterans Health Administration — the VA’s medical arm.
In an interview with Task & Purpose, one veterans service organization official equated VA health care privatization to “robbing Peter, to pay Paul, while John bleeds out.” In this analogy, Peter’s the VA, and veterans are John.
Since Feb. 19, the largest veterans organizations, AMVETS, Vietnam Veterans of America, Veterans of Foreign Wars, The American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, and Paralyzed Veterans of America, have rallied around the embattled secretary, advocating for Shulkin to remain at his post.
Though the messages vary between the VSOs individual statements, the tone is consistent, portraying a mix of disappointment over the actions detailed in the travel report, support for Shulkin’s past efforts, and concern over stories of a VA harried by inner turmoil.
Related: Lawmakers Slam VA Chief After Lavish European Trip Expenses »
The disappointment stems from the secretary and his staff’s decision-making during the 10-day Europe trip last year, which according to the Feb. 14 report, cost taxpayers $122,000; included five and-a-half days of sightseeing in Copenhagen and London; and came with allegations of wrongfully accepted gifts; and the claim that Shulkin’s now-retired chief of staff doctored an email so the secretary’s wife’s airfare could be billed to the VA. Shulkin has disputed the reports findings but agreed to repay the cost of travel and to pay back the value of a pair of improperly accepted Wimbledon tickets.
In their statements supporting the VA chief, veterans organizations cited Shulkin’s unanimous approval by the Senate — nearly a year to the day the inspector general report was released — and the VA’s efforts under Shulkin to improve the Post-9/11 GI Bill, reduce wait time for appeals, and expand mental health care for transitioning service members.
But veterans groups are worried that privatization advocates are using the IG report to get their way.
Related: The Knives Are Out For VA Secretary Shulkin »
“The news media over the past week has reported on the disingenuous actions of a few political appointees in Washington who are attempting to undermine” veterans support and confidence in the VA, reads the Veterans of Foreign Wars statement. “The acts of these individuals have become a cancer inside this Administration. They sow doubt, they create turmoil, and their ideological agenda clearly puts outside interests ahead of the care and well-being of millions of wounded, ill and injured veterans.”
Veterans service organization officials who spoke with Task & Purpose, have claimed that political appointees — some of whom were previously affiliated with Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative veterans advocacy group backed by the Koch brothers — have been pushing an agenda from within the VA for greater privatization.
That’s an accusation CVA is denying.
“Frankly I think there’ve been a lot of outright lies, and misrepresentation where Concerned Veterans for America fits in, in all of this, and what our relationship was like — and what we thought it was like — with Shulkin,” Dan Caldwell, the executive director for CVA, told Task & Purpose. In a previous email to T&P;, Caldwell described that relationship as such: “...despite what some have said — CVA has always had a good working relationship with Shulkin. We wouldn’t want to push him out — he has brought us to table like no one has before. He is also for the most part aligned with us.”
Though the VA did not respond to Task & Purpose’s request for comment about Shulkin’s “work relationship” with CVA, Caldwell emailed several press releases, social media posts, and news articles citing members of CVA, usually Caldwell, praising Shulkin.
“It’s quite clear that you have people, certain veterans service organizations and others, who are quite clearly pushing the narrative that we’re involved in this,” Caldwell said, before speculating that when the VA secretary’s policy has aligned with CVAs, it’s drawn the ire of other organizations, who see those moves as too close to privatization efforts. “They basically needed somebody who’s going to be the bad guy in all this,” he added.