Scandal-Plagued VA Secretary Vows to Rid Department of Adversaries Who 'Don't Belong'

VA Secretary David Shulkin said department employees must all be moving in the same direction. VA Secretary David Shulkin said department employees must all be moving in the same direction. Jose Luis Magana/AP

The embattled head of the Veterans Affairs Department on Tuesday shook off any indication that he might step down from his post in the wake of a scandal regarding his travel last year, saying he was setting the direction for the agency and everyone should either get on board or find another place to work.

Reforms and changes at VA are moving forward and that progress will continue, Secretary David Shulkin said after addressing the American Legion’s Commander’s Call conference. Other people throughout the department are reconsidering their roles and their future there, he said, but Shulkin himself has no plans to resign his post. Shulkin came under fire recently when an inspector general’s report found the secretary had improperly accepted gifts and used government funds while traveling in Europe last year on official business.

“I have very little tolerance for people who aren’t willing to focus on moving forward and that’s exactly what we’re going to do,” Shulkin said. “I’ve made it clear that there’s only one agenda in the department and that is to get back on track and anybody who doesn’t want to do that shouldn’t be in the VA.”

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The secretary said he was not going to spend his time “looking for subversion or doing investigations” but he would address “people who are pursuing different agendas” as they come to his attention.

“I’m looking into all the things that I’m aware of,” Shulkin said. “I’m going to hold people accountable for actions, but we’re moving forward and so I want everybody in the organization to know what their jobs are and I want them focused on their jobs.”

The differing visions among those in the Trump administration about the future of VA revolve largely around the role the private sector will play in providing health care for veterans. Shulkin has joined members of both parties in Congress in calling for a “strong VA system” that should be supplemented by access to private care when VA services are underperforming or unavailable. Some outside observers and even some individuals at VA and advising President Trump have called for much more dramatic changes that would move VA health care into a non-profit and allow veterans full discretion to seek private care whenever they choose to do so.  

Shulkin made that distinction clear during his speech, saying he was “fearful of privatization” because in that scenario, “We just send everybody out into the community where access is even more limited and they may not get the right care.”

Members of Congress and veteran service organizations have been largely tempered in their response to the IG report, saying the oversight should continue but standing by Shulkin as the right person to lead the department. The White House has said it has no reason to suspect Trump has lost faith in the secretary.

The secretary said he was not concerned that his newfound my-way-or-the-highway approach would create a chilling effect among the department’s career employees, explaining that the department depended on a “unified approach” to helping veterans.

“I’ve been a chief executive for a long time,” Shulkin said. “I don’t know how to run an organization, nor do I know any effective executive who knows how to run an organization, if there are people who are pursuing their own agenda.”  

He added: “I am not arguing that people shouldn’t have diversity of opinions. I think that’s how organizations get better, when people bring new ideas to the table and I’m not one who believes that I always have the right ideas so this is not a chilling effect on ‘everybody better have groupthink.’”

Instead, he explained, he was making clear that he would “not accept people who are going around the process to try to hurt the momentum and progress that we are having at the VA and working against the president’s agenda.”

Shulkin was initially critical of the inspector general for its report, but on Tuesday acknowledged that the watchdog’s work is critical.  

“Messages are not always simple,” the secretary said. “I support a strong IG who has a strong oversight role. I think they’re doing their function and I think that helps VA be strong.”

He noted that he has complied with the IG’s recommendations—Shulkin has reimbursed the government for the cost of his wife’s travel and for the tickets to the Wimbledon tennis tournament he received as a gift—but said his political adversaries were using the information to undermine him.   

“That is what I said I will not tolerate, that we are moving forward,” Shulkin explained. “There’s not going to be multiple agendas. And if they don’t understand that, they don’t belong in the VA.”

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