Just one day after firing Veterans Affairs secretary David Shulkin, President Donald Trump said he “wasn’t happy with the speed with which our veterans were taken care of,” and called for choice between private care and government-provided care for veterans.
Speaking at an event designed to tout the administration’s $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan in Richfield, Ohio, Trump veered off-topic to the VA, trumpeting the 2017 passage of an accountability act that makes disciplining employees for misconduct faster and easier, and vowed to provide more choice to veterans.
“We want them to have a choice, so they can run to a private doctor, and take care of it,” Trump said.
The president’s comments come just hours after Shulkin penned a blistering op-ed in the New York Times, criticizing the “toxic, chaotic, disrespectful and subversive” environment in Washington that he says prevented him from accomplishing work veterans need and deserve, and alleging his character had been attacked by politically-motivated people “who wanted me out of the way.”
Two administration officials tell ABC News that Shulkin was informed of his firing Wednesday afternoon, via a phone call from Chief of Staff John Kelly. Trump tweeted hours later that Shulkin would be replaced by White House physician Dr. Ronny Jackson, and thanked Shulkin for his service.
But Shulkin got the last word with his op-ed, writing, “As I prepare to leave government, I am struck by a recurring thought: It should not be this hard to serve your country.”
Shulkin wrote of his strong belief in the mission of the VA, and stressed that keeping the promise of care to our nations’ veterans is an essential national security concern. Among the accomplishments noted during his tenure are legislation improving the appeals process for veterans seeking disability benefits, reducing wait times, and increasing mental health services.
However, Shulkin claims those successes only “have intensified the ambitions of people who want to put V.A. health care in the hands of the private sector.” He feels he was seen as “an obstacle to privatization who had to be removed,” and that “political appointees choosing to promote their agendas… who seek to privatize veteran health care… unfortunately fail to engage in realistic plans regarding who will care for the more than 9 million veterans who rely on the department for life-sustaining care.”
Shulkin says the private sector is ill-prepared to handle the number and complexity of patients the VA serves. Republicans have long supported expanding choice for veterans to receive care at private facilities, or any facility that accepts Medicare. Veterans have been able to seek some care outside of VA facilities since a 2014 scandal in Phoenix revealed falsified wait-time records. Most veterans service organizations, such as the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and Veterans of Foreign Wars, are against privatization efforts.
Shulkin’s op-ed did not address one of the major causes of his firing: the controversy over a work trip to London and Copenhagen, during which he spent the majority of his time sightseeing, inappropriately accepted tickets to the Wimbledon tennis tournament, and improperly used government funds to pay for his wife’s travel, according to a report by the VA Office of the Inspector General.
Shulkin ultimately apologized for the improper behavior and reimbursed some costs of the trip. Initially, he released a similarly blistering response to the IG report, but eventually told lawmakers he regretted “the decisions that have been made that have taken the focus off that important work” at hearing on Capitol Hill.
That incident became a source of frustration for President Trump.
"I came to government with an understanding that Washington can be ugly, but I assumed I could avoid all the ugliness by staying true to my values," Shulkin wrote of his tenure. “Despite these politically-based attacks on me and my family's character, I am proud of my record and know that I acted with the utmost integrity. Unfortunately, none of that mattered.”