David Shulkin is sworn in during his Secretary of Veterans Affairs confirmation hearing in January 2017.

David Shulkin is sworn in during his Secretary of Veterans Affairs confirmation hearing in January 2017. (Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON – David Shulkin spoke out Thursday morning, hours after being fired as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and blamed his ouster on White House appointees who seek to dismantle the agency.

In a searing New York Times opinion piece, Shulkin wrote the agency, which is responsible for providing medical care to 9 million veterans, became enveloped in recent months in a “brutal power struggle.”

“The advocates within the [Trump] administration for privatizing VA health services … saw me as an obstacle to privatization who had to be removed,” Shulkin wrote.

He reiterated that message later Thursday morning during an interview with NPR, when he said some political appointees at the VA thought he wasn’t leading a fast enough charge toward privatization and sought to undermine him.

President Donald Trump fired Shulkin late Wednesday afternoon after weeks of internal strife at the agency that followed revelations of his questionable spending on a summer trip to Europe with his wife. The travel scandal and increased political grappling with White House insiders at the VA about the agency’s direction ultimately led to Trump’s disfavor with him.

An Office of Inspector General report on the travel scandal coalesced with his work in Congress to make major changes to how the VA uses private-sector care. It was clear that the debate on private-sector health care was a touch point in Shulkin’s rift with political appointees.

Beginning with his confirmation hearing 13 months ago, Shulkin has repeatedly said during the past year that he’s against privatizing the department. Many lawmakers and veterans organizations also believe an aggressive expansion of veterans’ health care into the private sector would erode VA resources and dismantle the agency.

Shulkin wrote he and his family were the subject of “politically based attacks.”

“I have fought to stand up for this great department and all that it embodies,” he wrote. “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.”

Shulkin didn’t mention in the column the travel scandal that ignited chaos within VA headquarters.

The IG released findings Feb. 14 that Shulkin violated ethical standards on an official trip that he and his wife took to Denmark and London during summer. He improperly accepted tickets to a Wimbledon tennis match and spent much of the trip on sightseeing activities, the IG found. During the fallout, Shulkin agreed to pay back $4,132 of taxpayer money spent on his wife’s travel expenses.

He addressed the IG report Thursday with NPR, claiming the trip was “mischaracterized.” The purpose of the trip was to attend a veterans summit with allied nations. Following the release of the IG report, the White House would not allow him to put out an official statement responding to the allegations, Shulkin said.

He vowed to be an advocate of the VA from the outside. In the NPR interview, he also said he would help his replacement, if needed. Trump nominated Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, the White House physician, to replace Shulkin.

“I know him well. He’s honorable and cares a great deal about veterans,” Shulkin said of Jackson. “I think he wants to do the right thing and will work hard to do that, and I will personally help him in any way possible.”

Lawmakers and major veterans organizations expressed concern Wednesday night about Jackson’s nomination. Jackson served as an emergency doctor in Iraq and was named White House physician in 2006. But his experience with veterans issues and management remains unknown.

Will Fischer, with VoteVets – a group critical of Trump, contended “now is not the time for people who need training wheels when it comes to managing a massive health care system.”

The VA is the second-largest federal agency, with more than 360,000 employees. It operates on a nearly $200 billion budget. Besides its vast health care system, the agency operates 135 national veterans cemeteries and is responsible for distributing monetary benefits to millions of veterans each month.

In response to a question from NPR about whether Jackson was up to the job, Shulkin said simply: “No one is naturally prepared to take on a task like this.” Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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