Ousted VA Chief: I refused to let the free market ruin the VA, so they pushed me out

That was quick! Within hours of his ouster as VA Chief yesterday, the New York Times had published an op-ed by David Shulkin trashing the Trump administration as free-market ideologues.

I believe differences in philosophy deserve robust debate, and solutions should be determined based on the merits of the arguments. The advocates within the administration for privatizing V.A. health services, however, reject this approach. They saw me as an obstacle to privatization who had to be removed. 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…

Unfortunately, the department has become entangled in a brutal power struggle, with some political appointees choosing to promote their agendas instead of what’s best for veterans. These individuals, who seek to privatize veteran health care as an alternative to government-run V.A. 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…

I have fought to stand up for this great department and all that it embodies. In recent months, though, the environment in Washington has turned so toxic, chaotic, disrespectful and subversive that it became impossible for me to accomplish the important work that our veterans need and deserve…I have been falsely accused of things by people who wanted me out of the way. But 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.

Shulkin’s claim that he did nothing wrong doesn’t hold up. Last August the Washington Post published a story on his 10-day trip to Europe which made clear at least half the trip was spent sightseeing:

Nearly three days into a trip to Europe this past July, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin had attended a Wimbledon championship tennis match, toured Westminster Abbey and taken a cruise on the Thames.

The 10-day trip was not entirely a vacation. Shulkin was in Europe for meetings with Danish and British officials about veterans’ health issues, so taxpayers picked up part of the tab.

Yet he and his wife spent about half their time sightseeing, including shopping and touring historic sites, according to an itinerary obtained by The Washington Post and confirmed by a U.S. official familiar with their activities.

The federal government paid for the flights for Shulkin and his wife, Merle Bari, and provided a per-diem reimbursement for their meals and other expenses, VA said Friday.

All of this came just two weeks after Shulkin issued a memo to the VA about making sure employee travel be limited to essential business. But an investigation by the Inspector General followed that story and found the official purpose of the trip consumed just 3 1/2 days of Shulkin’s time.

As mentioned above, Shulkin and his wife attended a Wimbledon tennis match (the women’s final) while in London. The face value of the tickets was $350 but they sold out quickly and the going rate for them was about ten times as much. Shulkin got the tickets through a woman named Victoria Gosling who he and his wife,  Dr. Merle Bari, had met on three prior occasions, all of them at official functions. Shulkin claimed Gosling was a personal friend to his wife and therefore the tickets were exempt as a gift from a friend. However, the IG concluded the friendship between Gosling and Shulkin’s wife wasn’t very close:

In a January 30, 2018 email response to the OIG’s request for an interview, Ms. Gosling identified Secretary Shulkin and his wife as “friends of mine” and stated that she offered the tickets “to thank them for their personal support to me whilst I was CEO Invictus Games Orlando.” In that email she agreed to talk with OIG investigators, but she did not thereafter respond to the OIG’s efforts to schedule an interview. OIG investigators contacted her by telephone on February 6, 2018, and conducted an unscheduled interview. That interview confirmed Secretary Shulkin’s account that prior to his acceptance of Wimbledon tickets, he and Dr. Bari only had contact with Ms. Gosling during three official events in the United States. During the course of the 26-minute interview, OIG investigators and Ms. Gosling referred to Dr. Bari only as Secretary Shulkin’s “wife.” Toward the end of the interview, OIG
investigators asked whether Ms. Gosling could recall the first name of Secretary Shulkin’s wife. After a long pause, Ms. Gosling was unable to recall Dr. Bari’s name, stating, “You actually — I think that kept throwing me. I’m actually having a genuine blank here.” Ms. Gosling was unable to recall Dr. Bari’s name before the interview concluded.

My good friend—whatshername. The total cost of the trip to taxpayers was $122,000. That doesn’t include the official time VA staff spent planning leisure activities with Shulkin’s wife. Here’s what they eventually came up with:

Personal activities planned for the Denmark trip included touring Amalienborg Palace for the Changing of the Guard; visiting Christiansborg Palace, Rosenborg Castle, and Frederiksborg Castle; taking a boat tour of Copenhagen from Nyhavn Canal; and shopping in Copenhagen. There was also an unplanned excursion across the border to Malmo, Sweden, for dinner on their last day, July 14. For the London trip, planned tourist activities included excursions to the Churchill War Rooms, Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, and Westminster Abbey; a Thames River cruise; and visits to St. Paul’s Cathedral, Tower of London (including the Ceremony of the Keys), Tower Bridge, Shakespeare’s Globe, London Eye, and Windsor Castle.

There’s a lot more in the full IG report, including a misleading statement to the media and the story of how the $4,000 airfare for Shulkin’s wife became a VA expense. He eventually agreed to reimburse the department for her travel expenses and for the tennis tickets. In any case, one day after the IG report made news, the NY Times published a story (based on an interview with Shulkin) which claimed he was being forced out because of his position on privatization.

There may be some truth to that, though I don’t think it explains Shulkin’s pre-existing travel problems. During the campaign, President Trump said he wanted veterans to have more choice between the VA, which has been plagued with long wait times and hidden wait lists, and private care options. Shulkin, the one Obama holdover still serving in the Trump administration, was apparently resisting those changes. An anonymous White House source told the NY Times, “This isn’t ideological; it is just what the president wants. He wants veterans to have choice.”

It would be one thing to defend the purity of the VA system if that system was considered a model in the United States. But that’s obviously not the case. Since the story about hidden wait lists broke in 2014, the VA has been revealed to have ongoing problems in many areas around the country. Just this Monday a veteran killed himself in the waiting room of a St. Louis VA hospital. The VA needed to change. If Shulkin had a problem with following the new administration’s lead on that, he should have resigned. Instead, he waited for the ax to fall and is now trying to make himself into a martyr.