Administration officials aim to debunk "the myth" that the department will turn over health care services to the private sector.
The Trump administration took one final shot at fired Veterans Affairs Department Secretary David Shulkin, using his own words against him while trying to assuage any concerns that the agency is looking to make itself obsolete.
The department issued a press release on Thursday titled “Debunking the VA Privatization Myth,” saying it had no plans to turn over its major operations to the private sector. The issue has been a key sticking point in the oversight and attempted reforms of the department, with most advocates looking to ensure VA stays at the center of the health care veterans receive. VA has, under both the Obama and Trump administrations, looked to ease the process by which veterans receive care from private doctors on the government’s dime.
Many lawmakers and advocates in the veterans community have expressed concern with the direction Trump will take the department, due in part to the policy officials the president has sent to VA. Shulkin repeatedly stated he had no interest in privatizing any part of VA’s operations, but merely wanted to simplify and streamline the various avenues veterans had to receiving private care when options at government-run facilities were limited. In his final weeks as secretary, Shulkin said those who thought he was not pushing hard enough to give veterans choice in whether they receive private or government care attempted to undermine him and get him fired.
In a New York Times op-ed published after his firing, Shulkin warned that his political enemies from within the Trump administration pushed him out not due to the scandals surrounding him but because of those ideological differences. Shulkin added that the environment surrounding him became “so toxic, chaotic, disrespectful and subversive” that he could no longer accomplish his job. He said his opponents within the department, whom he repeatedly vowed to oust, were fighting to privatize VA health care and saw him as a barrier in achieving that goal.
“They saw me as an obstacle to privatization who had to be removed,” Shulkin said. “That is because I am convinced that privatization is a political issue aimed at rewarding select people and companies with profits, even if it undermines care for veterans.”
On Thursday, VA said Shulkin was misrepresenting the views of the administration.
“There is no effort under way to privatize VA, and to suggest otherwise is completely false and a red herring designed to distract and avoid honest debate on the real issues surrounding veterans’ health care,” VA said.
The department noted that it has added more than 100 new medical facilities in the last 20 years and its budget has more than tripled. Its workforce has grown by 60 percent in that time, VA said, including adding 15,000 employees since Trump took office.
VA cited Shulkin’s own words in saying that “no health care provider delivers every treatment under the sun,” and the department has sought the private sector’s assistance in some capacity since 1945. Its goal remains the same as what Shulkin had been pushing, which will likely come as a sign of relief for veterans service organizations that thought the former secretary’s ouster would result in the administration pursuing a new direction.
“VA is working with Congress to merge all of VA’s community care efforts into a single, streamlined program that’s easy for veterans and VA employees to use so the department can work with veterans to coordinate their care with private providers when VA can’t provide the care in a timely way or when it’s in veterans’ best medical interest,” the department said.
Garry Augustine, executive director at Disabled American Veterans, said VA's release was overly focused on the word "privatization," rather than striking the proper balance on the extent to which veterans get to choose where they receive care.
"I don’t think they’re being realistic about what the issue is," Augustine said.
VA also quoted House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Phil Roe, R-Tenn., in explaining that no privatization efforts were under way. A spokeswoman for Roe said he had no idea the department would blast out his words and should have consulted with him prior to doing so.
“We’re on the same team here, but the chairman is not a spokesman for” the department, she said.
Ronny Jackson, Trump's selection to replace Shulkin, has yet to publicly weigh in on his views for the role the private sector should play in veterans' health care. His confirmation hearing has not yet been scheduled.