White House Hedges on Shulkin As Vets' Groups Rally Behind Him

The White House pointedly declined an opportunity Tuesday to express confidence in embattled VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin despite growing support for keeping him on the job among veterans groups.

At a White House briefing, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said there was a secondary review underway on Shulkin's travel expenses.

"Until that's completed I can't comment any further" on Shulkin's status in the administration, she said.

Last week, VA Inspector General Michael Missal issued a damning report charging that Shulkin used taxpayer funds to pay the $4,132 airfare for his wife on a trip last summer to Denmark and London, and also wrongly accepted free tickets to the Wimbledon tennis tournament.

Huckabee Sanders left unclear which agency was conducting the secondary review of the IG's 97-page report, but several members of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees asked last week for the matter to be referred to the Justice Department.

Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colorado, a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee and a veteran of the Army and the Marines, called for Shulkin's immediate resignation following the release of the IG's report.

Before Huckabee Sanders' terse remark, several Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) representing millions of vets said they supported retaining Shulkin, the only holdover from the Obama administration in the Trump Cabinet, despite the travel expense scandal.

The American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Disabled American Veterans, AmVets and VoteVets said they wanted him to stay on the job to serve as a hedge against what they view as Trump administration attempts to "privatize" the health care mission of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"While we were disappointed to learn of the recent issue with the Secretary's travel, we believe that the current controversy surrounding the Secretary is part of a larger effort to remove him and install others who would take steps to privatize the services provided to our nation's heroes," Denise Rohan, national commander of the two-million member American Legion said in a statement.

The Legion and other VSOs have consistently warned that the Trump administration's push to expand the Veterans Choice Program, which allows vets to opt for private and community care, would eventually lead to the gutting of the VA's health care system.

Shulkin has taken the position that Choice should be extended with guaranteed funding and remain an option when it's in the best interests of the veteran, but he has also stressed that privatization of VA health care will not happen on his watch.

While also expressing concern about Shulkin's travel expenses, DAV National Commander Delphine Metcalf-Foster said in a statement:

"We remain extremely concerned that in the current political climate, efforts are underway to undermine the Secretary's mission to strengthen and modernize VA as opposed to outright privatize the nation's largest integrated healthcare system."

Along similar lines, Bob Wallace, executive director of the VFW, said that the organization backed Shulkin based on what is known thus far about the travel expenses. He added that "we also support veterans receiving timely and quality health care and benefits" through the VA.

On Twitter, at least one post from an individual claiming to be a Legion member said he would be terminating his membership to protest the support for Shulkin, but the VoteVets group said that retaining the VA Secretary was necessary to block privatization.

"While Secretary Shulkin has done himself no favors, we are supremely concerned about stories that have emerged that point to an internal campaign at the VA, led by those who would totally destroy and privatize the agency," said Will Fischer, an Iraq War veteran and the VoteVets director of Government Relations.

Fischer was referring to a Washington Post report that White House was targeting the No. 2 official at the VA, Deputy Secretary Thomas Bowman, as a "warning shot" to Shulkin on the stalled efforts to reform and expand the Choice program.

The Washington Post quoted a White House official as saying that the possible ouster of Bowman was "a move to knock Shulkin down a peg or two" over his perceived foot-dragging on Choice.

In a statement, Sen. Johnny Isakson, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said he was "deeply disappointed" in President Donald Trump if Bowman was being targeted.

"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 said. "Veterans will suffer because of this decision if it's true."

In their statements, the VSOs also criticized what they called the "political infighting" typified by the reported moves against Bowman that they said was distracting from the VA's prime mission to serve nine million vets annually at 170 hospitals and more than 1,200 community care facilities.

Keith Harman, national commander of the 1.7 million-member VFW, said he was concerned that Trump political appointees were "attempting to undermine the support and confidence of America's veterans in their Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as in the Secretary and Deputy Secretary who lead it."

Trump has often boasted of his support among veterans, and expanding Choice was one of the main points in his campaign plan for reforming the VA, but Harman said "I now call on President Trump to clean house of these distractors" among the political appointees.

The DAV's Commander Delphine Metcalf-Foster said "We have not always agreed with the Secretary, but we believe he is a proven advocate for veterans -- not special interest groups who openly advocate shrinking and dismantling the VA."

The Concerned Veterans of America, an advocacy group, was an exception to the support for Shulkin expressed by the congressionally chartered Veterans Service Organizations.

"We had hoped that Secretary Shulkin would quickly acknowledge and fix the serious ethical lapses raised by the Inspector General so he could return his focus to reforming the VA," Dan Caldwell, the CVA executive director, said in a statement.

"Unfortunately, Secretary Shulkin has instead refused to fully admit his mistakes and has decided to create unnecessary distractions within the VA," Caldwell said.

As he has previously, Fischer of VoteVets dismissed the CVA as an outlier among vets groups that was funded by the conservative Koch brothers.

Fischer called for an investigation into "whether there has been a coordinated effort by VA or White House staff with groups like Concerned Veterans for America, in any way, to push for Secretary Shulkin's ouster, so someone who wants to wholly privatize the agency can be installed."

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to show the Concerned Veterans of America is an advocacy group.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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