David Shulkin, who was ousted as VA Secretary Wednesday evening, claims he was forced out because people within the agency and the Trump administration viewed him as "an obstacle" to privatizing the VA health system.
Shulkin, M.D., wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times that successful policy changes within the Department of Veterans Affairs "intensified the ambitions" of people within the agency and the administration who want to privatize VA healthcare.
"In recent months … the environment in Washington has turned so toxic, chaotic, disrespectful and subversive that it became impossible for me to accomplish the important work that our veterans need and deserve," Shulkin wrote.
Shulkin echoed those sentiments in an interview with National Public Radio Thursday morning. Shulkin also said he was not allowed to speak out in his defense when the VA's Office of Inspector General released a report that alleged he misused taxpayer funds on a trip to Europe.
Outgoing VA Secretary David Shulkin: "There was nothing improper about this trip and I was not allowed to put up an official statement or to even respond to this by the White House." https://t.co/os0dz9JiPr pic.twitter.com/fo5GTA55eV— Morning Edition (@MorningEdition) March 29, 2018
Shulkin didn't blame President Donald Trump explicitly for the internal divisions at the VA, but said political appointees at the agency have "changed" the VA over the past several months.
"There are many political appointees in the VA that believe we are moving in the wrong direction or weren't moving fast enough towards privatizing the VA," Shulkin told NPR. "I was not against reforming VA, but I was against privatization."
During his confirmation hearings, Shulkin had said the VA's health system "would not be privatized on my watch," but he said he was willing to expand private-public partnerships.
Veterans groups have expressed concern about Shulkin's ouster and whether his potential permanent replacement, White House doctor and Navy Admiral Ronny Jackson, M.D., is ready to take over one of the largest bureaucracies in the government.
AMVETS noted that Jackson is still an active duty serviceman, and said the change could threaten crucial progress at the VA.
'After more than a full year of progress, the #VA still faces large and complex challenges that require continuity of experience and capable leadership.' https://t.co/czue0wFYV6 pic.twitter.com/ctXsZkaOog— AMVETS (@AMVETSHQ) March 29, 2018
"After more than a full year of progress, the VA still faces large and complex challenges that require continuity of experience and capable leadership," the group said in a statement. "It's unclear at this point if President Trump's nominee would provide the VA either of those things."
The American Legion praised Shulkin's work as secretary and said it looks forward to "working directly with the president" during the transition. The group said it would provide the president with "an increased level of feedback" on veterans' issues.
The chairs for both the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees offered measured takes on Shulkin's firing, with Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., chair of the House committee, saying he looks forward to "building a relationship" with Jackson.
"I think [Shulkin's] done a fantastic job and I hate to see him go," Roe said. "That said, I respect President Trump's decision, support the president's agenda and remain willing to work with anyone committed to doing the right thing on behalf of our nation's veterans."
"Dr. Shulkin has made a tremendous impact toward improving the lives of veterans during his time at the Department of Veterans Affairs," Isakson said.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a member of the Committee on Veterans Affairs, urged the committee to block a nominee that supports privatizing the VA, potentially setting up a showdown over Jackson's confirmation. Shulkin was confirmed unanimously.
Every major veterans’ organization in this country vigorously opposes the privatization of the VA. I stand with them. The Veterans Affairs Committee should not approve any nominee for secretary who supports the privatization of the VA. https://t.co/57GmVvdVlm— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) March 28, 2018
Shulkin's dismissal also raises questions about a still unsigned contract with Cerner to overhaul the system's EHR platform. Shulkin, who became a leading proponent of transitioning the system to an off-the-shelf system that aligned with the Department of Defense, selected Cerner last year with the hope of signing a contract before the end of 2017. But concerns regarding interoperability have stalled the contract.