Tuesday 17/07/2018 - 09:09 am


VA Secretary David Shulkin says he learned "lots of lessons" from handling of travel report


2018.02.27 02:47

 Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said the past two weeks have been a “difficult time” as he grappled with the findings of a VA inspector generals investigation that concluded he improperly accepted airfare for his wife and Wimbledon tickets during a European trip last year. Shulkin said he learned from the experience and is eager to refocus on fixing the VA.

“I think as I look back upon it, there are lots of lessons that I could learn from this,” Shulkin said in an interview with USA TODAY. “And putting the agency in a position where we’ve had this distraction is something that I take accountability for. And I want to learn from that and move forward, so we can get back on the agenda that we all have to do, and that is to fix VA health care and fix VA services.”

The inspector generals report released Feb. 14 concluded Shulkin spent nearly half of the 10-day trip to Denmark and London sightseeing, and he wrongly used a VA aide on official time to plan the leisure activities. The report said the tennis tickets came from a British businesswoman he had met only at official events; therefore, he shouldn’t have accepted them. The report said his then-chief of staff doctored an email to ethics officials to secure approval improperly for his wife to join him on the trip at taxpayer expense.

Before the report’s release, Shulkin called the findings inaccurate and unfair, but afterward, he expressed regret and said he would repay the cost of the airfare and tennis tickets. He suggested after the report’s release that his chief of staff’s email may have been hacked. That chief of staff, Vivieca Wright Simpson, retired amid the fallout Feb. 16.

Shulkin said Monday that a subsequent review found the VA computer system was not breached and that Simpson’s email was not hacked. He said the incident that led to his raising such a possibility was her showing him an email from someone outside the VA using her name.

“I think what we know right now is that there was no compromise to the system,” he said. “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.”

Shulkin, a physician who ran hospitals in New Jersey and New York, said he appreciates and respects the inspector general, an independent watchdog within the VA tasked with rooting out waste, fraud and abuse, and he is complying with the report’s recommendations. Those include having his deputy secretary, Thomas Bowman, ensure a thorough audit of the European trip, including expense vouchers and time and attendance records for all the travelers.

Shulkin and his wife were joined on the trip by a top health deputy and her husband, Wright Simpson, another VA aide and a six-person security detail. Four Democratic senators echoed the need for an audit in a letter to Shulkin last week and asked that the results be provided to Congress. 

“I actually look forward to sharing all (the) information and hearing from them about what their thoughts are,” he said. “I’m open and transparent about everything that happened, and I’ve never tried to misuse funds, I’ve never tried to hide anything.”

Shulkin, who was undersecretary for health at the VA before becoming secretary under President Trump last February, said he believes he still has the confidence of the president to stay on in his Cabinet post.

“He wants to continue the work that we’ve done that’s so important. The president is passionate about making a difference for veterans. This is both important to him, a priority, and I believe personal, and therefore he wants to see us succeed,” he said.

“And he knows that I’m taking us in the direction that he wants us to go, and I’ll continue to do that as long as I have his confidence, and that’s something that every day, I wake up and I consider an honor and a privilege to be in this position, and I want to continue to make the progress that we’ve been making over the past year,” Shulkin said.

During his tenure, Shulkin has overseen the creation of a 24-hour White House hotline for veteran complaints and an Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection at the VA, both Trump campaign pledges.

He instituted same-day appointments for veterans with urgent medical and mental health care needs at VA medical facilities across the country. He made strides on transparency, posting wait times at each facility and quality measures, such as mortality and infection rates, compared with private sector facilities.  He oversaw the creation of a health care tracking office designed to detect problems at VA hospitals before they become crises. 

Shulkin said his top priorities are modernizing VA records and buildings, decreasing veteran suicides, cutting the backlog of benefit applications and appeals and getting legislation through Congress that would provide veterans more opportunities to get VA-funded care in the private sector when the VA can’t meet their needs.

“We need to make progress, because maintaining the status quo isn’t working well enough for veterans,” he said. “We can do better, and we have to do better, so I’ll continue to work with any partner that wants to move this organization in a productive way forward. And that’s really what I’m trying to do, which is to say, we have too much work to do, and so it’s time to continue the type of work that the president wants us to do, the progress that we need to make.”

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