While David Shulkin’s future as Veterans Affairs secretary remains uncertain, he has the support of at least one key Republican senator.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, told President Donald Trump this weekend that he has full confidence in Shulkin’s ability to lead the agency, according to a Politico report.
Isakson made the comments in the wake of reports that Trump was considering firing Shulkin and replacing him with Pete Hegseth, the weekend host for Fox and Friends and a U.S. Army veteran who served in Irag and Afghanistan.
Shulkin has fallen out of favor in recent weeks following a VA Office of Inspector General report, which took issue with his use of taxpayer money to pay for his wife’s travel to Europe that mixed VA business with sightseeing and a visit to a Wimbledon tournament. Shulkin initially disputed the findings, but later repaid the cost of her travel. But negative headlines continued with reports of a power struggle within the VA and political appointees trying to push Shulkin out of office.
Last week Shulkin told a Congress he regrets the distractions within the office and wants to refocus his efforts on getting the agency back on track and improving the lives of veterans.
Despite the recent difficulties within the agency, Isakson told Politico that Shulkin has done a “great job” as secretary and has made progress in improving the VA services.
Meanwhile, Republicans aren’t convinced that Hegseth would get the votes needed for confirmation because he has been a frequent critic of their work, according to the article. And some worry that the focus on Shulkin’s mistake regarding travel last summer is preventing the agency from making improvements in healthcare services for veterans.
Indeed, it’s time to stop talking about his trip to Europe and talk about how to implement true VA reform, wrote Rory E. Riley-Topping, the principal of Riley-Topping Consulting and longtime veterans advocate, in a piece for The Hill.
“VA’s problems with access to care for veterans are systemic in nature and, although a strong leader is required to correct systemic problems, stability in leadership is required as well,” she said. “The more the administration focuses on who is in charge, the less they are focused on implementing reform.”
And in an opinion piece for The Guardian, journalist Ross Barkan said Shulkin’s real problems with Trump are because he is opposed to aggressively privatizing veterans’ healthcare. Instead, Shulkin supports the need for private care when veterans live too far away from a VA facility or wait times are too long. If Trump fires Shulkin, Barkan wrote that it will mean veterans may end up paying more for the healthcare they earned long ago.
In the meantime, extensive reforms to the VA, including an overhaul of the Veterans Choice program, are included in the $1.3 trillion spending bill currently under debate in Congress. Stars and Stripes reported that the current proposal in the spending bill would allow veterans to receive care through Veterans Choice only upon authorization of the VA secretary. Leading veterans organizations support the measure as it offers a more balanced approach to care and ensures veterans would have timely access to appointment, according to the article.
But lawmakers are also fighting over several other controversial issues, including immigration and abortion, that are hitching a ride on the spending bill to fast-track their passage.
If Congress can’t agree on the spending bill by Friday, it could lead to another government shutdown unless lawmakers approve another short-term bill while they hash out the issues.