Embattled Shulkin Ousts 3 VA Regional Directors in Major Overhaul

In this Aug. 16, 2017, photo, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin speaks during a press briefing in Bridgewater, N.J. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Embattled VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin has announced a top-to-bottom management overhaul of the agency, beginning with the ouster of three regional directors in charge of hospitals and clinics in 12 states serving three million vets.

The announcement Wednesday followed a second damning report from the VA Inspector General's office charging that widespread "leadership failures" at the Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center "put patients at risk."

"We can do better and we have to do better" throughout the entire VA health care system of 170 hospitals and more than 1,100 clinics, Shulkin said at a news conference. "It is time for this organization to do business differently."

He was already under fire from a previous IG's report charging that he improperly billed the government for travel expenses on a trip to Europe last summer. Shulkin said he has written a check to reimburse the government for his wife's $4,132 airfare.

The White House thus far has backed him in public, but Shulkin, the only holdover from the Obama administration in the Cabinet, has claimed that White House and VA political appointees are seeking to undermine him.

"Look, Secretary Shulkin has done a great job," White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Wednesday at a press briefing. She said President Donald Trump directed Shulkin to take an "aggressive approach" in reforming the VA, "and he's done that since becoming secretary."

At his news conference, Shulkin said he last spoke to Trump on Tuesday and had received assurances that the political infighting would cease.

The sniping from inside and outside the VA has been "an unfortunate distraction. Those days are over. We are all now focused on the work that has to be [done] here that's important for us to do," he said.

The message from the White House, Shulkin said, is that "I am the secretary and my job is to fix this system [for] veterans, and things that are not productive are not tolerated."

In earlier statements Wednesday, Shulkin said that he valued the IG's report on the Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center while noting that the failures listed had mostly been addressed.

He pointed to the IG's conclusion that no patients had died or suffered harm despite the widespread supply deficiencies, including doctors being forced to use defective equipment for medical procedures.

At the later news conference, Shulkin said the IG's report would be used as a guideline for correcting systemic failures throughout the VA's health care system.

In a statement, the VA said Shulkin "has pledged to immediately take action and implement several proactive steps to help correct and prevent similar problems" at other VA facilities.

Shulkin is bringing in teams of outside health care management experts "to begin making unannounced on-site audits at VA facilities," the department said.

The outside auditors will also "conduct VA-wide staffing reviews, restructure logistics to decentralize accountability, and establish new control and oversight for medical center performance," including at VA headquarters, the VA said.

In addition, Shulkin said replacements will be announced in the coming weeks for the regional VA directors for the New England states; Arizona, New Mexico and southern California; and West Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C..

Michael Mayo-Smith, who was in charge in New England, and Marie Weldon, the regional director for Arizona, New Mexico and Southern California, are retiring. Joseph Williams, who had charge of VA facilities in West Virginia, Maryland and Washington, is being reassigned to another post to be named later, the VA said.

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

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