White House targets VA's top deputy as 'a warning shot' to agency's leader
By EMILY WAX-THIBODEAUX, LISA REIN AND JOSH DAWSEY | The Washington Post | Published: February 8, 2018
WASHINGTON — The White House wants to remove the Department of Veterans Affairs' second-in-command as a "warning shot" to VA Secretary David Shulkin, an Obama-era holdover who has frustrated the administration by networking with lawmakers who don't support President Donald Trump's plan to overhaul the scandal-ridden health care system, according to people familiar with the matter.
Deputy Secretary Thomas Bowman, who was appointed by Trump and confirmed in August, was said to be at odds with the administration's plan to expand health care access for veterans through private providers, these people said. His departure would create another senior leadership vacancy at an agency whose highly publicized shortcomings Trump has promised to fix.
A White House official said a plan to oust Bowman was in the works, but some of his admirers in Congress pushed back, saying Bowman's job is safe.
Deputy White House press secretary Lindsay Walters referred a request for comment to VA. A spokesman for the agency, Curt Cashour, referred comment to the White House.
Bowman could not be reached.
"It's a move to knock Shulkin down a peg or two," said a White House official, who like others interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a personnel matter. "The administration feels like Shulkin has been freewheeling a little too much. Rather than sticking with the administration's position on the Veterans Choice Act, Shulkin has been working with senators who don't agree with the White House provisions."
The Choice Act reimburses veterans who seek medical care outside of VA. There are two bills pending in Congress to amend it. Trump favors the one that would most aggressively expand options for veterans to see providers who are not on the government payroll, saying the beleaguered agency can't adequately care for the 9 million veterans it serves.
There has been animosity between VA and the White House over how far Choice should go in offering outside health care services, a shift that some on Capitol Hill and veterans service organizations fear could jeopardize federal funding for VA's 1,200 facilities and the research its doctors perform to advance care for severely wounded combat veterans.
With 350,000 employees, VA is the nation's largest health care system.
Shulkin is the only Obama-era holdover in Trump's Cabinet. He was confirmed as VA secretary in February 2017. Trump elevated him to the agency's top position from his role as undersecretary for health.
Bowman's exit would leave three crucial leadership jobs vacant. There is no permanent undersecretary for health, a job Bowman was asked to hire someone for. There is also no undersecretary for benefits, an essential post because that person would oversee VA's benefits-approval backlog and disabilities compensation and appeals process.
"Every political appointee at the VA matters, both for day-to-day management of the agency and for any reform efforts that may be pursued there," said Phillip Carter, who leads the veterans research program at the Center for a New American Security.
"These jobs have solid career professionals filling them now, but the Trump administration needs to put qualified political appointees in these jobs if it hopes to deliver on its promises of VA reform," Carter said.
Bowman served for 30 years in the Marine Corps and spent a decade at VA before becoming the majority staff director for the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. He has also worked as a private attorney concentrating on military and veterans issues.
Bowman, officials said, supports Choice Act legislation put forward in November by Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, and Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, the panel's top Democrat. The committee passed their bill, known as the "Caring for our Veterans Act," by a 14-1 vote and won the support of more than two dozen veterans service organizations. It was developed with Shulkin's input.
Since that vote, 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 been paralyzed by political infighting.
Bowman worked for Isakson as the committee's staff director in 2015. In a statement, the senator indicated his staff was blindsided by the development.
"Tom Bowman is a veteran and a patriot, a public servant and a good man. If this is true, it will be a mistake, and I am deeply disappointed in the president," Isakson's statement says. "Veterans will suffer because of this decision if it's true."