VA head David Shulkin reflects on travel controversy and initiatives to improve healthcare for veterans

David Shulkin
VA Secretary David Shulkin told USA Today that he takes accountability for putting the agency in an uncomfortable position after an inspector general report criticized his use of taxpayer money for a European trip that mixed business and pleasure. (

David Shulkin, M.D., secretary of veterans affairs, said he’s learned a lot of lessons over the past few weeks after the fallout from a VA inspector general’s report. The report found that he misused taxpayer money to pay for his wife’s airfare for a European trip that mixed government business with pleasure.

Shulkin told USA Today that he takes accountability for putting the agency in an uncomfortable position and causing a distraction from his agenda to fix the VA healthcare system and services to veterans.

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The inspector general report called for Shulkin to reimburse the VA and U.S. treasury for his wife’s airfare to Denmark and London last July as part of a VA staff trip, as well as tickets to Wimbledon, which Shulkin said were a gift from his wife’s friend. The report also accused one senior staff member of deliberately altering an email to justify that the VA should pay for Shulkin’s wife’s travel expenses.

Although Shulkin initially disputed the claims in the report and suggested that someone hacked the account of Chief of Staff Vivieca Wright Simpson, he has since agreed to reimburse the agency and Wright Simpson has announced her retirement. And in the interview with USA Today, Shulkin said a subsequent review has found that Wright Simpson’s email wasn’t hacked after all.

“I think what we know right now is that there was no compromise to the system,” Shulkin told the publication. “I think—again I’m reaching beyond my expertise—but I think that there was no hacking, this was more what’s called spoofing, which is the impersonation of a person, but it’s not within the firewalls.”

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Shulkin said in the article that he wants to go back to his work to improve the agency, including getting support in Congress to provide more opportunities for veterans to receive medical care from the private sector when the VA can’t meet their needs.

Meanwhile, Shulkin has the full support of the White House administration, according to an article in the Washington Post. White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly met with several VA groups on Monday to reassure them. The American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign War, and the Disabled Veterans of America were concerned with reports that there was a power struggle within the agency and some political appointees wanted to push Shulkin out.

The meeting was productive, according to VFW Executive Director Bob Wallace, who said in a statement to that the groups discussed with Kelly current legislation that would better care for veterans as well as current operations inside the Department of Veterans Affairs. “It was a good meeting," he said.