VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin claimed Sunday that he has President Donald Trump's backing to stay on the job while renewing charges that he is being targeted by White House political appointees.
"So let me get right to it. This has not been the easiest past week or so for me or my wife," Shulkin said at the annual Disabled American Veterans (DAV) conference in Arlington, Va.
Shulkin referred to the Department of Veterans Affairs Inspector General's report last week charging that he improperly billed the $4,132 airfare for his wife on a trip to Denmark and London last July and also wrongly accepted free tickets to the Wimbledon tennis tournament.
Shulkin at first disputed the report but then accepted responsibility and said he has already written a check to reimburse the Treasury.
He followed that up with his own charges that he is fighting "subversion" within the agency from political appointees who see him as an obstacle to expanding private-sector health care choices for veterans.
"It's my job to keep pushing for what's the right thing for veterans and what's consistent with the president's agenda," Shulkin told Stars and Stripes after his speech to the DAV.
"I don't want to slow down. I think there are efforts to try to politicize what we're doing, and I'm trying to stay focused on the road ahead and keep us going," he said.
"My goal is to get us past this distraction and to make sure everybody understands there's only one team," Shulkin said. If political appointees are out to get him, he is also out to get them, Shulkin said.
"People who have subversive ideas or are creating two different agendas don't have a place in the VA, and people have to make a decision whether they're going to be on the team or off the team," Shulkin said.
Earlier, Gary Augustine, executive director of the VA, told Military.com, "It is political, it's getting a little nasty," and "the secretary is caught in the middle of it."
The DAV and other veterans service organizations have pointed to a December e-mail from Jake Leinenkugel, a White House adviser on veterans affairs, to Camilo Sandoval, a political appointee at the Veterans Health Administration.
The email, first reported by The Washington Post and later obtained by Military.com, showed that Leinenkugel favored replacing Shulkin with a more politically attuned secretary who would rapidly expand private care for veterans.
Leinenkugel, a former brewery company executive who served six years in the Marine Corps and left with the rank of captain, said in a list of "solutions" that Shulkin should be "put on notice to exit" once other legislative priorities were passed.
Leinenkugel also targeted VA Deputy Secretary Tom Bowman, the No. 2 official at the agency, saying that Bowman "doesn't trust the current slate of political staff."
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a retired Marine general, has called a meeting Monday with the major veterans organizations to address their concerns over Shulkin's claims that he is being "undermined" by the political appointees.
Leaders of the VSOs have backed Shulkin and charged that the political appointees are being influenced by the advocacy group Concerned Veterans of America, which is funded by the conservative Koch brothers, on the "privatization" of the VA health care system, the largest in the nation.
CVA has consistently replied that it backs private care when it's in the best interests of the veteran.
At a National Press Club news conference last Friday, Denise Rohan, national commander of the two-million member American Legion, said veterans "deserve treatment in a system that was created specifically for them."
"We believe it is a system worth saving," Rohan said. "Yes, it is far from perfect, but I challenge anyone to come up with a health care system that is perfect" or offers "better health care service than what we have at the Department of Veterans Affairs."
She called on the White House to ignore the "well-funded lobbying effort" aimed at undermining through privatization the central mission of the VA to serve the health care needs of nine million veterans annually at 170 hospitals and more than 1,100 outpatient facilities.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.