White House meets with veterans groups amid tension over Shulkin, Choice program

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin speaks to members of the media during a briefing at the White House on May 31, 2017.


By EMILY WAX-THIBODEAUX | The Washington Post | Published: February 26, 2018

WASHINGTON — White House Chief of Staff John Kelly told top veterans advocates Monday that President Donald Trump supports Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, whose future in the administration was called into question this month amid a power struggle among political appointees, according to people who participated in the discussion.

The meeting was arranged by Kelly following revelations that Shulkin, the only Obama-era holdover in Trump's Cabinet, had become a target of conservatives hoping to install a new secretary who would be more supportive of their plan to expand health-care options beyond the VA system - a controversial program known as Choice. Leading advocacy groups, including the American Legion, the VFW and the Disabled Veterans of America, fear the goal is to dismantle VA, and they view Shulkin as an ally in that standoff.

Garry Augustine, who heads DAV's Washington, D.C., headquarters, said the groups emphasized to Kelly their belief that Shulkin won't be effective unless VA's leadership team is united behind him. Kelly, a retired Marine general, appeared "gracious and intent on listening" to their feedback on how far the administration should go in offering private health-care options, Augustine said.

Most of the groups represented at the White House on Monday support legislation, put forward by Sens. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., calling for a gradual expansion of the Choice program while maintaining healthy funding for VA. The Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee passed the bill last year, and the White House has signaled its support with "modest changes."

Since that vote, however, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., introduced his own Choice expansion proposal and later merged it with a bill put forward by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Both pieces of legislation have stalled amid political fights.

In a statement released after Monday's meeting, White House officials said the Trump administration "continues to work with Congress ... and will continue these discussions to ensure veterans receive the care they deserve."

One group that attended the White House meeting, Concerned Veterans of America, favors a more aggressive approach. Its plan would allow veterans to be treated at non-VA facilities, and then patients, doctors and hospitals would be reimbursed by the government. Critics say such a plan would be too expensive and could harm VA's funding.

CVA is backed by Charles and David Koch, billionaires who seek to roll back government bureaucracy. The group has been one of VA's most vocal critics since the agency's 2014 wait-time scandal was exposed. Its profile has grown during the Trump administration, with one of its former senior advisers, Darin Selnick, serving as veteran affairs adviser inside the White House.

CVA's attendance at the White House meeting caused palpable tension, according to multiple participants.

"We assumed the meeting was just for and among veterans service organizations, not political groups," said John Hoellwarth, a spokesman for the advocacy group AMVETS.

Dan Caldwell, a spokesman for CVA, said the group was grateful for the audience with Kelly and for the administration's broader receptiveness to its ideas.

"We look forward to continuing to work with President Trump and his team to advance reforms to the VA that will ultimately help our veterans," he said.