David Shulkin, secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, hasn’t had an easy week.
Or at least that’s how he summed up the past 10 days — rife with ethical scandals, infighting at the VA and marked by the departure of his chief of staff — when speaking Sunday morning to hundreds of veterans at the annual Disabled American Veterans conference in Arlington, Va.
“So, let me get right to it. This has not been the easiest past week or so for me or my wife,” Shulkin opened, drawing laughs from the crowd. “We got a good sense of what Washington is all about.”
Shulkin learned a lesson in Washington politics, he said, and he’s trying to move past what he described as distractions.
“It’s my job to keep pushing for what’s the right thing for veterans and what’s consistent with the president’s agenda,” Shulkin told Stars and Stripes after his speech. “I don’t want to slow down. I think there are efforts to try to politicize what we’re doing, and I’m trying to stay focused on the road ahead and keep us going.”
On Feb. 14, VA Inspector General Michael Missal released findings that Shulkin improperly accepted tickets to a tennis match at Wimbledon for he and his wife on an official trip to Europe, and spent much of the taxpayer-funded trip sightseeing. Chief of Staff Vivieca Wright Simpson, who was found to have misled an ethics official into approving travel expenses for Shulkin’s wife, announced her retirement amid the fallout. One congressman has called for Shulkin to immediately resign.
Days after the release of the IG report, divisions were publicly revealed between Shulkin and one White House adviser, Jake Leinenkugel, who wrote an email in December expressing frustration and distrust in Shulkin and making known his desire to eventually oust him.
Sunday marked Shulkin’s first public address to veterans since the turmoil began, and he was met by a friendly audience. They applauded as he took the stage, and the acclaim continued throughout his speech and after.
“Secretary Shulkin took on one of the toughest and most important jobs in Washington,” said Danny Oliver, president of the DAV commander and adjutants association, who introduced Shulkin. “In his confirmation hearing, he pledged to always protect the interests of veterans, which has proven critical as major reforms already underway in the VA system continue.”
Shulkin has enjoyed the support of DAV and other major veterans organizations that rallied behind him following the release of the IG report and revelations of battling among VA leadership. The groups said they were satisfied with Shulkin repaying the U.S. Treasury for his wife’s travel expenses. They feared any potential replacement for Shulkin would work to push veterans’ medical care into the private sector and dismantle the VA system – something Shulkin has pledged to protect against.
The VA secretary also received little criticism when testifying before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs one day after the IG report was released. At the hearing, some lawmakers came to his defense.
The White House has yet to issue official, clear support for Shulkin to remain at the VA, an agency where President Donald Trump promised to root out corruption.
But last week, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said there was “no reason to believe” Shulkin had lost Trump’s confidence. Shulkin told Stars and Stripes on Sunday that he had the president’s backing.
Shulkin gave some indication Sunday of how he planned to move forward.
First, he intends to uncover anyone in VA headquarters with “subversive ideas” and remove them.
“My goal is to get us past this distraction and to make sure everybody understands there’s only one team,” Shulkin said. “People who have subversive ideas or are creating two different agendas don’t have a place in the VA, and people have to make a decision whether they’re going to be on the team or off the team.”
Shulkin wouldn’t go into details about any personnel decisions that were made — or could be made — amid the VA infighting.
In a 20-minute speech to the DAV, Shulkin outlined five priorities for the year, the first of which is to legislatively overhaul the Veterans Choice program, which allows veterans to receive medical care in the private sector. One year ago at the same event, he listed the same priority, with the hopes a new system would be in place by 2018.
Legislation has stalled in Congress because of debate over how far veterans’ medical care should expand into the private sector. At one point, it appeared Shulkin favored legislation that has bipartisan support in the Senate, while White House officials favored a Republican-led bill that provides more aggressive expansion.
Shulkin said Sunday that negotiations were reaching a consensus.
“It’s not been a smooth road. There have been bumps, but that’s the way that policy gets made in Washington,” he said. “It’s rare that you get complete agreement on anything in Washington, but… I think it’s all moving in the right direction.”
Shulkin’s other priorities were modernizing VA infrastructure and technology, improving timeliness of health care and speeding up veterans’ disability claims, refocusing resources on veteran-unique medical issues, such as traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicide prevention.
Shulkin is scheduled to speak again Tuesday morning to hundreds of American Legion members.
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