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David Shulkin: Political appointees pushing VA privatization to financially benefit others, not veterans

Former Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said Thursday that political chaos in the agency, largely sparked by the fight over privatization of veterans services, played a role in President Donald Trump’s decision to remove him from the job.

The president announced Wednesday that he was replacing Shulkin — an Obama administration holdover who opposed the complete privatization of veterans’ health care and other services — with the White House physician, Navy Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson.

Shulkin blamed the internal push for privatization in the months leading up to his departure on Trump political appointees, claiming the officials “have agendas of their own” and saw Shulkin as a threat. He also suggested the appointees weren’t taking direct orders from the president. Shulkin did not specify which appointees he was referencing.

“I just don’t see privatization as a good thing for veterans,” Shulkin said in an interview with the PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff.

“I think that those that are really sticking to a political ideology or are doing this for other reasons, like financial reasons, don’t have the interests of veterans at heart,” he added.

Other highlights from the interview:

  • Shulkin called Jackson “a very honorable man,” though he also said he was unfamiliar with Jackson’s policy stances.

“I certainly hope that he’s going to continue the work that I’ve been doing to move the department, to transform it in a better way,” Shulkin said. “And I will certainly do everything that I can to help Dr. Jackson succeed in that role.”

Trump has named a high-level Defense Department official, Robert Wilkie, to run the Department of Veterans Affairs on an acting basis.

  • Shulkin also downplayed a report from the department’s inspector general that asserted that he misused government funds for activities during an official trip last year to Europe. He said he repaid the government for the costs that were in dispute.

“I think that this was, really, all about the politics, and really not about the substance of the issue. I certainly take taxpayer dollars very seriously. I have a high level of concern for making sure that we are using our money for veteran issues,” Shulkin said.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Trump's Cabinet and staff purge continued yesterday with the firing of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin. Mr. Trump announced on Twitter that his White House physician, Navy Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson, would be nominated for the job Dr. Shulkin held for three years.

    Shulkin's ouster had been rumored for some time. It came after an ethics investigation over some questionable travel and expense issues and after reported internal strife at the agency over the outsourcing of medical care to private providers.

    Dr. Shulkin criticized the administration this morning in The New York Times, alleging he was fired because he disagreed with plans to privatize much of the VA's functions.

    It is the government's second largest department, with more than 300,000 employees and an annual budget of $200 billion.

    I spoke with Dr. Shulkin just a short time ago about why he was forced from his job.

  • David Shulkin:

    I was simply told that he wanted to make a change. And, of course, as a Cabinet member, you serve at the pleasure of the president, so that's all that I was told.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And why do you think you were removed?

  • David Shulkin:

    Well, I think that the president has strong feelings about the way that he wants the Cabinet made up, and this was a personal decision, that he felt more comfortable going a different direction, and I certainly respect that decision.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You said in an interview earlier today with NPR that the political appointees at the Veterans Administration wanted to speed up, in effect, privatization, and they wanted to do it so much that they undermined what you were trying to do in reforming the VA.

    Who are these people, and what exactly were they doing?

  • David Shulkin:

    Well, I think there's no doubt that, when I became secretary, I made it clear that the Veterans Administration shouldn't be a political department, that it was important that we do things in a bipartisan way.

    I believe that's essential for our national security to get things done. And people that came on to the Department of Veteran Affairs as political appointees after the election, I believe, wanted to see the department move further towards privatization and not remain in a bipartisan, moderate approach, and, therefore, saw me as a threat to their political philosophy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you were already moving — had moved the department in that direction, as you say. A number of the services provided by the VA were contracted out to private entities. What more did they want? Did they want full privatization?

    I mean, can you describe what they're asking for?

  • David Shulkin:

    Yes, absolutely.

    As you know, Judy, I joined the administration under President Obama, and I have been consistent from the day I started that, in order to fix the problems in the Department of Veteran Affairs, that it can't do it alone, it needs to work with the private sector.

    And I have consistently driven us towards strengthening the VA internally, at the same time in working closer with our private sector partners.

    What I think that the political appointees wanted to see is not to strengthen the VA, and just to increasingly allow veterans unfettered access to the private sector, to be able to go there whenever they wanted it, which, of course, is a noble goal.

    But we have nine million American veterans that we're caring for, and we have to make sure that we're honoring our responsibility to them. And that means also investing and keeping the VA a strong organization.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, I guess some of this is hard to understand, because President Trump has talked repeatedly about wanting to strengthen the VA, wanting better service force our veterans.

    But you're saying he's — in essence, he's sided with the folks who you say are going to weaken what the VA is doing.

  • David Shulkin:

    No, you know, I think you're right. The president has been very consistent that he wants to see the situation improve for veterans. And I believe I was following his instructions, and we were making that progress.

    I think that these political appointees have agendas of their own and were pushing in a direction that didn't necessarily come directly from the president. And, you know, this was a concern that I tried to address inside the organization, but, you know, I think that the political chaos just got to be so much, that the president felt that he needed to go in a different direction.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But he sided with them, didn't he, in removing you?

  • David Shulkin:

    Well, I think, ultimately, they wanted to see a change in the secretary, and the president ultimately made that decision, but I don't believe that there was direct communication between these political appointees and the president.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you think your successor, Dr. Ronny Jackson, do you believe that he's going to be moving in the direction that those political appointees want, moving faster toward privatization?

  • David Shulkin:

    I have never talked to Dr. Jackson about his policy or political issues on this.

    But I certainly hope that he is going to continue the work that I have been doing to move the department, to transform it in a better way. And I will do everything that I can to help Dr. Jackson succeed in that role.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I think what may be unclear to people watching who don't follow some of these issues very closely is, I mean, you referenced in your piece in The New York Times today, you said you're convinced that privatization is a political issue aimed at rewarding select people and companies with profits, even if it undermines care for veterans.

    So there is something underhanded going on here. Can you name some of these companies or people who would profit?

  • David Shulkin:

    I just don't see privatization as a good thing for veterans.

    And I think those that are really sticking to a political ideology are doing this for other reasons, like financial reasons, don't have the interests of veterans at heart. And I think you just have to talk to the veterans groups to hear that.

    And that's something that I did as secretary. I stayed very close to those who represent the nine million Americans who get their health care in VA and the many more million veterans who get their services and benefits through VA. And I think that the people that are pushing towards privatization are really representing only a small minority of veterans in this country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One other thing, David Shulkin.

    And that is the inspector general at the Veterans Administration found that, in that trip you took to Europe last year, that there were expenses that you basically made the government pay for that they said should have been personal.

    You mentioned the chaos a minute ago. Did your own actions contribute to what happened here, ultimately?

  • David Shulkin:

    Well, Judy, let's talk about that.

    This was a meeting that's been going on for 43 years that every VA secretary has attended, with 40 hours of interaction with our allies who fight all the wars together. And the only government expense was a single co-chair fare for my wife, who was invited to this conference.

    She's a physician. And that was approved by our ethics department. Everything was done exactly how it should have. Six months later, the inspector general found that a staff member had not done the paperwork correctly. And when that report came out, I paid every penny of that coach airfare back.

    So, I think that this was really all about the politics, and really not about the substance of the issue.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally, has President Trump spoken with you since this happened?

  • David Shulkin:

    No.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David Shulkin, the former secretary of veterans affairs, thank you very much.

  • David Shulkin:

    Thank you, Judy.

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