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VA Secretary: I believe World War II vets’ claims of mustard gas exposure

Veterans Affairs Secretary David J. Shulkin visits Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, April 27, 2017.

MEGAN GARCIA/WALTER REED NATIONAL MILITARY MEDICAL CENTER

By CHUCK RAASCH | The St. Louis Post Dispatch (Tribune News Service) | Published: June 20, 2017

WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said Tuesday that he believes veterans who say they were harmed by mustard gas exposure during World War II but have had claims denied by the VA, and that he will work with Sen. Claire McCaskill on a remedy.

“I think the government can and should do better than it has done on this issue,” said Shulkin, who was appointed by President Donald Trump to head the 350,000-employee veterans health care system that was rocked in 2014 by allegations of poor service and long waits for appointments at some VA facilities.

Shulkin said he was behind the efforts of McCaskill, D-Mo., to pass legislation that would deal with a dwindling number of these World War II veterans, including Arla Wayne Harrell of Macon, Mo., who says he was exposed to mustard gas experiments at Camp Crowder in Missouri in the waning days of World War II, but kept it secret for decades under threat of being thrown in military prison for exposing military secrets.

“We believe him and we are going to act as quickly as we can to make sure that he is recognized and gets what he clearly deserves,” Shulkin said at a breakfast with reporters sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.

Harrell, 90, was 18 when he says he was twice exposed in mustard gas experiments at Camp Crowder in southwest Missouri in 1945. The VA has repeatedly denied his claims, saying he did not prove that his medical problems were caused by exposure to experiments that the Pentagon for years did not acknowledge.

The bill introduced by McCaskill would set aside $1 million annually to take a fresh look at the chemical agent exposure claims of World War II vets who had those claims denied. She estimated that no more than 400 are still alive.

Harrell’s family say their claims on his behalf are mainly for their father’s peace of mind; they say he is troubled that his government does not believe him.

Shulkin, the former president and CEO of Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City and a veteran administrator in other private health care systems, is Trump’s point person in trying to make it easier to fire bad employees and to offer veterans private-care assistance in areas where the VA does not provide adequate care.

That veteran choice push began before Shulkin took office. Some Democrats call it a beachhead toward privatizing the entire system. The issue has become more politically charged in recent weeks because Shulkin has said the $10 billion set aside during the 2014 VA scandal to cover veterans seeing private doctors is running out. He has asked Congress for the authority to shift money from other programs to cover the veterans’ private choice initiatives.

“This concept of having funds in silos makes no sense to me,” Shulkin said.

He said he believes the VA needs much more than “incremental” change. Shulkin said that after serving as an undersecretary at the VA under former President Barack Obama, he believes that the VA will work best for veterans by combining the best of what the agency does, in areas like traumatic brain injury and catastrophic injury, while covering veterans who get medical treatment in areas where the private sector does a better job.

He used an example of paternity care, an issue that has arisen as more women serve in the military. It makes no sense, he said, for the VA to build maternity wards when it can pay for coverage in established maternity hospitals.

“There has been concern particularly expressed by some on the Senate is taking money that should be invested in the VA and moving it into the community and that could be called privatization,” Shulkin said.

“That is not my intention to do that. My intention is to make the best decisions in each region for how veterans get those services. In some places we are going to need to buy more community care. In others, we are going to have to invest more money in the VA. … I need the flexibility to make those decisions.”

Trump this week is expected to sign legislation giving Shulkin more authority to fire bad employees. Shulkin has complained that his hands are largely tied to get rid of employees who do poor work or, in some cases, no work at all. He cited a VA psychiatrist who was caught watching pornography while treating a patient but still works at the facility.

Critics have said the bill Trump is expected to sign would erode due-process claims of employees, and give the VA secretary too much power.

But Shulkin said Congress and Trump are about to give him the authority to run the VA more like a private business.

“This will improve recruitment, not hurt recruitment, because there is nothing more demoralizing than being in an organization (with a co-worker) that everybody knows no longer shares the values, the morals, the ethics of the vast majority of people who go to work every day for the right reasons, and to serve veterans,” he said.

Shulkin has also announced initiatives to combine electronic VA records with those at the Department of Defense so that there is a “seamless” medical history of a person from the day of enlistment to end of life care. Shulkin said the cumbersome process of getting recently retired veterans into the VA system has created a vulnerability in dealing with suicide, which he said was at “crisis proportions right now.”

He also would like to improve telehealth services at the VA, which he called the largest user of such services in the world, with more than 700,000 cases handled through telehealth.

Shulkin also is trying to close down or repurpose about 1,100 VA facilities he said no longer are being used or only are partially used. But 492 date to the Civil War or earlier, and the VA may have trouble shutting some down because of their historical significance, Shulkin said.

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