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Leadership Fiasco at the VA
By Suzanne Gordon
In the last week of March, after weeks of hints and threats, President Donald Trump finally fired Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) David Shulkin. Since the VA's Office of the Inspector General report on Shulkin's ill-fated trip to Wimbledon in July of 2017, Trump was increasingly displeased with the man whom, he said, would never hear Trump's favorite phrase, "you're fired." Shulkin gave Trump a great deal of ammunition when he got the government to pay for his wife's trip to England. According to Shulkin, the political appointees with links to the Koch Brothers who favored rapid VA privatization were also pushing for his ouster. While Shulkin's record on privatization has hardly been reassuring, it is clear that those in and around the White House want even more rapid privatization than the outsourcing and plans for private sector partnerships which Shulkin favored.
The President has said he wants his personal, private physician, Rear Admiral Ronny L. Jackson, to be the new VA Secretary. Jackson has no qualifications for the job. He has never administered anything larger than a small cohort of staff in the White House. He has spent most of his career taking care of well-heeled, or super-rich politicians and political staff. I recently spoke with a physician who, like Jackson, was a Navy physician, who also saw combat in the Middle East. He expressed his shock that Jackson would even consider the post. It was either a sign of poor judgment or hubris, he said.
Meanwhile, Trump has bypassed Thomas Bowman, whom he appointed, and who was confirmed to be Deputy Secretary of the VA and should have replaced Shulkin as Interim Secretary. Instead, Trump has assigned that role to Robert Wilkie, who served as Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness in the Department of Defense, and who has no VA experience. Wilkie is an ardent conservative who worked for Trent Lott and Jesse Helms. This appointment has generated considerable controversy. Indeed, it's not even clear if Trump has the authority to pass over Bowman and appoint Wilkie. According to the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998, the President only has the authority to temporarily fill a vacancy at a federal agency if the person being replaced "dies, resigns, or is otherwise unable to perform the functions and duties of the office." Despite what the White House, whose relationship to the truth is shaky at best, claims Shulkin insists he was fired.
Meanwhile, in Congress, several bills that could have a huge impact on the VHA are still pending. These are House Resolution 4242, introduced by Phil Roe (R-TN) and Tim Walz (D-MN) and Senate Bill 2193, introduced by Senator Johnny Isakson,(R-GA) and Jon Tester, (D-MO). Both of these bills, which have been sadly, supported by some Democrats and veterans service organizations, would hasten outsourcing of VA care, deplete VA budgets, and gradually privatize the VA. They should be opposed by all veterans and anyone concerned with the future of healthcare in the United States.
One of the main reasons the Koch brothers and other ultra conservatives are pushing the narrative that the VA is broken beyond repair is that they want to promote the idea that government can do no good and that the private sector can do no harm. They are adamantly opposed to any government programs and deeply opposed to expansion of government services. They are almost apoplectic about the prospect of any kind of publicly funded, national health program (known as single payer) in the US. They devote millions to amplify any problems that occur in the VA and use even small problems to try to convince Americans that a rational tax-supported national health system would be a disaster. The VA is proof positive that publicly funded healthcare works and works really well. Yes it has problems, but those problems quickly become transparent and with enough funding and resources can be remedied.
Veterans should be calling their congressional representatives to oppose HR 4242 and Senate bill 2193. They should be petitioning their political representatives to fully fund and staff the VA and stop bashing VA employees and the system as a whole. They should also be asking mainline veterans service organizations to delay any action on the future of the Veterans Administration until after the 2018 elections, when, hopefully, Congress will be reconstituted and more of its members will actually believe that it is the duty of legislators to support the democratic institutions for which veterans have fought long and hard.
Suzanne Gordon is the author of The Battle for Veterans Healthcare: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Policy Making and Patient Care. Her latest book, Wounds of War: How the VA Delivers Health, Healing, and Hope to the Nation's Veterans will be published in November by Cornell University Press.