Is Shulkin fighting for his job?

...or is he keeping VA from privatization?

Jonathan Kaupanger
March 01, 2018 - 3:49 pm

Photo by Roberto Koltun/Miami Herald/TNS/Sipa USA

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VA staff was relieved when David Shulkin’s name was floated to take the top spot at Veterans Affairs.  Sources inside VA tell Connecting Vets there was concern about other names floated before his.  Everyone assumed Shulkin – who was already serving as undersecretary for health – would know what he was getting into.

But did he?  Shulkin says he has the backing of the White House, but does he? 

Who really is in charge at the VA?

One person considered for VA’s top job was former Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL).  Miller was an early Trump supporter.  He was also the Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs from 2011 until last year.  During his time as chair, the VA suffered the Phoenix wait-time scandal and failed to pass the Choice Act.  Miller, with no military service record, blocked VA reform at every chance. 

Miller also has deep ties to Concerned Veterans of America (CVA).  Sen. John Tester (D-Mont.), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, described CVA as “a political advocacy group funded by the Koch Brothers who want to dump unlimited amounts of dark money to push dangerous policies that would privatize the VA or convert the Veterans Health Administration into an independent government chartered nonprofit corporation.”

Miller didn’t get the job, but he did give VA their press secretary, Curt Cashour.

Cashour was brought over to VA from the House Committee on Veterans Affairs once Miller retired from Congress.  John Ullyot, VA’s Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs, hired him on last summer. 

Then things got weird.

In January, Shulkin decided to change the VA’s motto, a quote from Abraham Lincoln, to be more gender inclusive.  He had the agency’s Center for Women Veterans director send out letters to veterans groups informing them of this change.  The letter states that VA would gradually make changes to digital and print materials. 

Yet Cashour told The Washington Post that VA would continue to use Lincoln’s quote unchanged.  He said, “VA is proud of Lincoln’s words as a historic tribute to all veterans, including women veterans whose service and sacrifice inspires us all.”

A few days later, Shulkin’s strategic plan for VA was sent out with the new, gender-neutral motto on it. 

Again, Cashour told The Washington Post this wasn’t VA’s position and soon a new document with the original quote had replaced Shulkin’s plan.  According to people briefed on the incident, Shulkin was stunned by Cashour’s actions.

When Shulkin’s recent European travel problems came to a head, Cashour did not support his superior.  When Shulkin posted a personal statement on VA.gov; Cashour removed it.  All questions were referred directly to the White House.

The day after the IG report on Shulkin’s London trip was released, the secretary faced lawmakers during a congressional hearing about VA’s budget.  Among Shulkin’s defense was that his chief of staff’s email had possibly been hacked and emails were edited.

Wednesday, USA Today reported that both Cashour and Ullyot lobbied to have Shulkin fired shortly after the committee meeting.

Cashour and Ullyot had called a senior aide at the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.  According to the report, they asked lawmakers to call the White House to demand Shulkin’s firing. Both Cashour and Ullyot deny this.  They said that the call was to inform the aide that they found no evidence of email hacking. Instead of backing their boss, they stated the opposite.

Two more Shulkin subordinates who are causing trouble for the secretary are Jake Leinenkugel and Darin Selnick. 

Leinenkugel’s office is next to Shulkin, but his title is senior White House adviser.  Things seemed to be ok at first between the two men.  Then in May, Shulkin accused Leinenkugel of undermining him. 

Shulkin wanted to nominate Dr. Poonam Alaigh, who was then acting undersecretary for health, to the position permanently.  Shulkin says Leinenkugel asked the White House to kill the promotion.  By October, Alaigh resigned and the position has yet to be filled.

Selnick was senior advisor to the secretary when he joined VA, but after things soured between him and Shulkin last year, he moved across the street to the White House and joined the White House’s Domestic Policy Council. 

At the White House, Selnick – who used to work for the pro-privatization group CVA - would call veteran related meetings without informing Shulkin.  It was at one of these “Veterans Policy Coordinating Committee” meetings in November merging the Choice program with the military’s Tricare insurance originated.  According to ProPublica, Shulkin said that moving Selnick out of the VA was his “biggest mistake” because Selnick was able to do more damage from the White House.

It’s not just senior staff that Shulkin is battling. Senator Jerry Moran – the Kansas republican who represents the Koch brother’s home state and has received campaign donations from the brothers - blamed Shulkin for the political stalemate when it came to modernizing the VA.  In a Senate oversite hearing in January, Moran said, “Our inability to reach an agreement is in significant part related to your (Shulkin’s) ability to speak out of both sides of your mouth: double talk.”

There are two bills in Congress that are meant to fix the VA’s Choice Program. One is supported by 26 groups who represent millions of vets.  The other is Moran’s version of the bill which has the support of Selnick, Leinenkugel and CVA.   In the Moran/CVA bill, VA medical centers would need to meet certain standards to qualify as a preferred treatment center. 

If medical centers can’t reach the standards, then veterans could get a community healthcare provider.  This is a big change since December when the Senate’s VA committee voted for a bill that gave the secretary discretion to relax limitations to community care programs.

The New York Times reported last week that Leinenkugel is pushing to have Shulkin removed and replaced with former VA undersecretary Michael J. Kussman.  Kussman is reported to have close ties with CVA. 

According to the Times, the fight for VA’s leader all boils down to a gradual dismantling of VA’s system and turning it into taxpayer-subsided care from private doctors.  Lawmakers from both political sides believe that this would be too expensive, with estimates being anywhere from $50 to $100 billion annually.

“I’m the secretary,” Shulkin said this week.  “I’m setting the direction with moving forward.  I’m going to continue to do the progress we’ve talked about and I have very little tolerance for people who aren’t willing to focus on moving forward.”