WASHINGTON - Facing reports that he might soon be fired by the White House, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin told a House committee Thursday that he was fighting “politics and distractions to focus on vets.”
Shulkin began the session with praise of President Donald Trump’s proposed $200 billion budget for the agency, calling it “very strong.” But he was quickly asked about his own situation.
“Let’s discuss the proverbial elephant in the room - some reports even mentioned you have an armed guard stationed outside your office? Is all of this squabbling affecting your mission to serve veterans?” Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., asked during the hearing.
Shulkin defended his security detail, saying “every cabinet member has a security detail that is armed. And I prefer not to discuss the specifics of it.”
The secretary then said: “I’ve come here to improve the lives of vets. A lot of people are more interested in politics. I’m interested in getting the job done. I do believe we are getting back on track. And there is a lot of work to do.”
Cabinet members can request an armed guard - Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, for example, has round-the-clock protection, which has drawn criticism for the costs. But many officials are tight-lipped about their security detail.
Shulkin warned that a shooting at a veterans’ home in Yountville, Calif., last week was proof that the agency has “very urgent and important issues to work on,” including high rates of suicides to opioid addiction. In that incident, a troubled veteran opened fired, killing three therapists, after a day-long standoff with police.
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Shulkin was also asked where he stands on an issue that is causing deep divides inside the agency - whether more veterans should be able to seek care from private doctors outside of the agency, a stance backed by conservative factions in the administration.
“Let’s make sure we are rowing in the same direction and focus on veteran care,” committee member Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D- Fla., said. “And this looks like a backdoor privatization request. We know veterans don’t want that. They say you get the best care - when they can get in - at VA.”
When asked by Wasserman Shultz again whether he was under pressure to privatize the VA, and brought up the issue of high rates of suicide among female veterans, and how the suicides were prevented at far better rates when they sought care inside the VA.
She then asked: “That underscores the point.. But what you didn’t really answer in the last round is Has this administration or anyone pushed in the direction of privatization,” she asked towards the end of the two-hour hearing.
Shulkin responded: “It’s the reasons why I’m not in favor of privatization because you can’t take 9.1 million veterans getting care in - 60 percent carry at mental health issue - and release them into the general public. It simply couldn’t work by privatizing the system.”
“The president is very, very committed to improving services for veterans,” he said.
“There’s no pressure to privatize. But there is certainly pressure to fix this system. And the way we are going to fix this system, is by investing in VA, where it needs to be improved, as you are pushing us to, as well as working with the private sector.”
Repeating what he was previously said about his position on the issue, Shulkin said: “I’m not in favor of privatizing VA. But, I’ve been clear that we can’t do it alone.”
Shulkin called suicide prevention his “top priority,” and said VA’s budget was dedicating $8.6 billion, an increase of 5.8 percent, serving 162,000 more patients under the proposed budget. In January, President Donald Trump signed an executive order aimed at expanding mental health care for veterans just leaving the military, in an effort to reduce suicides in a group that is considered particularly at risk.
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The order, which will take effect March 9, is expected to provide all new veterans with mental health care for at least a year after they leave the military. Trump has given the Defense Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Veterans Affairs 60 days to iron out details and develop a joint plan.
Shulkin, the lone Obama administration holdover in Trump’s Cabinet, has been battling an internal insurgency led by conservative forces in the administration who want to expand veterans’ health care options outside the department.
His reputation - and his relationship with Trump - has also been bruised by a recent inspector general investigation into his official travel, specifically a trip to Europe last year with his wife and senior staff.
Trump has told aides that he might replace Shulkin as part of a broader shake-up of his Cabinet, three advisers to the president told The Washington Post this week. Senior White House officials said Shulkin could be forced out within days.
On Wednesday, Democrats on the House and Senate veterans affairs committees demanded clarity on “who’s calling the shots” at VA, lamenting reports of Shulkin’s impending ouster and attacking the Trump administration for allowing its “dysfunction” to infect the embattled agency.
A physician and former hospital executive who won unanimous confirmation by the Senate last year, Shulkin, 58, has so far been able to hold onto his job. And Trump as recently as this summer told him that he would never hear Trump’s old reality show catchphrase, “You’re fired.”