David Shulkin, President Barack Obama’s appointee and the last-standing member of his administration, has now resigned from his post as Secretary of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
Or has he? Contrary to White House statements, Shulkin himself vehemently claims President Trump fired him. If this is true, there could be sweeping implications for the VA and the 22 million veterans it serves.
Federal law states that Trump can appoint an acting VA secretary only if Shulkin “dies, resigns, or is otherwise unable to perform the functions and duties of the office.” By saying he was fired, Shulkin could force the acting secretary’s decisions to be challenged in court or void his or her appointment altogether until Trump’s permanent pick is approved.
As for that pick? Rather than appoint the next in line of succession, Deputy VA Secretary Thomas Bowman, Trump tapped U.S. Department of Defense Undersecretary Robert Wilkie to be the interim secretary. More questionable is Trump’s nomination for the permanent post: his very own physician, Ronny L. Jackson. Is Jackson really the right person to care for vulnerable veterans?
Shulkin Departs Under Suspicious Circumstances
Shortly after his departure, Shulkin set out on a media tour. In interviews with NPR, ABC News, CNN, and others, the former secretary said he was dismissed only hours after meeting with the president. Trump had asked about “the progress that I was making, what I needed to do from a policy perspective to make sure we’re fixing the issues in VA.”
“He was very inquisitive about the things we were working on, making sure we were focused on the job at hand,” Shulkin said. No plans of letting him go were mentioned; Trump saved that for Twitter, and White House chief of staff John Kelly framed the so-say resignation as an “opportunity.”
An op-ed Shulkin wrote for the New York Times tells a different story. He claims that recent VA successes attracted the private sector. And as someone opposed to privatization – in other words, undermining veterans’ care in favor of profits – Shulkin was seen as an obstacle “who had to be removed.”
“Unfortunately, the department has become entangled in a brutal power struggle,” he said, “with some political appointees choosing to promote their agendas instead of what’s best for veterans.”
How Would Privatization Affect Veterans?
The VA’s track record of doing what’s best for veterans isn’t exactly clean. For years, wait times for care and benefits approval were as long as 5 years. However, as Shulkin tells it, political involvement had made it impossible for him to do his job properly.
Just last June, Trump slashed budgets for long-term care programs. This came a month after the VA announced promising progress with its backlog of claims – veterans were waiting an average of 203 fewer days for a decision.
Continued progress would have been monumental for claimants, who often die waiting for approval as thanks for their services to our country. But Shulkin believes the private sector is ill-equipped to handle the volume of patients, even less to understand complex service-related health problems (like mesothelioma) that the VA has worked to address.
Trump’s Agenda Uncertain – for Time Being
Up until now, Trump has agreed with Shulkin not to privatize the VA. Yet the president’s decision to appoint Wilkie over Bowman to serve as acting secretary raises questions, again, over his authority to pick and choose replacement cabinet members and the underlying reasons.
There’s no doubt that legal challenges to Wilkie’s decisions would come at a critical turning point for the department. The nomination of Jackson, who clearly lacks the experience needed to lead the government’s second-largest bureaucracy, makes even less sense. How can we be sure someone will continue on the positive note Shulkin left behind?
“I can assure you that I will continue to speak out against those who seek to harm the VA by putting their personal agendas in front of the well-being of our veterans,” he said. “As I prepare to leave government, I am struck by a recurring thought: It should not be this hard to serve your country.”