Editorial: A Coup at Veterans Affairs

If you're like us, your initial reaction upon hearing that President Donald Trump had picked his personal physician to head the Department of Veterans Affairs was: "What? You mean the guy who looks like a retired Grateful Dead roadie and said `unequivocally' that Trump would be `the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency'"?

No, not him. The doctor with no managerial experience nominated to head the second-largest federal bureaucracy is Dr. Ronny Jackson, the lead White House physician since 2013 and a rear admiral, who said after an exam in January that Trump was in "excellent health," despite being overweight and needing a higher dosage of cholesterol-lowering medication.

Trump tends not to look very far when seeking to fill top government positions. He named his family event planner to head an important regional office of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He floated the idea of putting his personal pilot in charge of the Federal Aviation Administration. What's next, making his son-in-law Middle East peace envoy?

But, anyway, it seems that as secretary of Veterans Affairs, Jackson would not be tending to Trump so much as to the right-wing billionaires Charles and David Koch and others who support privatization of veterans' health care and other services.

The man Jackson would replace as head of this long-troubled department, David Shulkin, whom Trump fired on Wednesday, was the highest-ranking holdover from the Obama administration and among the few Trump Cabinet members with demonstrated ability at their jobs.

Shulkin had strong bipartisan support in Congress — he was confirmed 100-0 by the Senate — and was backed by almost all veterans groups. He guided important legislation through Congress, a rare accomplishment for this White House. These laws led to an expansion of the GI Bill for post-9/11 veterans, an easier process to remove bad employees and quicker appeals on disability benefits.

The department's inspector general found "serious derelictions," though, in the way Shulkin spent his time and taxpayer money during a European trip, during which he had improperly accepted tickets to Wimbledon. That's a serious problem. But it's laughable to think that this would be a disqualification for a president for whom corruption is a continuing business model and who has watched some Cabinet members treat self-dealing as a perk.

So we come back to the Koch brothers. After a year of amity between Shulkin and the president, there came word last month of behind-the-scenes intrigue inside and outside the department over replacing the secretary. Those supporting such a move had ties to the Kochs and a group they fund called Concerned Veterans of America.

The group advocates privatizing VA care, which Shulkin has opposed. While the department has increased the role that private doctors play in the treatment of veterans — which is particularly useful in areas far from VA hospitals — most veterans advocates believe that despite the department's history of serious problems with access to care and with the quality of care, the solution is more funding and better management. They see privatization as a boon for the private sector, not for veterans. And, as Shulkin said in an op-ed article in The New York Times late Wednesday, the 9 million veterans who use the VA would overwhelm the private sector. More than 1,200 hospitals and clinics in the VA system provide that care now.

Trump gave no reason for firing Shulkin, but it's all too believable that powerful political donors lay behind it. Each administration is entitled to pursue its own goals. But once again, this one has chosen a policy that is opposed by the people it would affect and that would chiefly benefit an entitled sliver of Americans.

~ The New York Times


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