WASHINGTON (AP) — Seeking to put a blistering travel controversy behind him, embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said Tuesday he is focused on expanding medical care for veterans, even as he hints that rebellious VA staff remaining opposed to him may soon leave the department.
Speaking to reporters at an American Legion event, Shulkin said he had delivered a clear message to department employees that he was in charge and that bad behavior wouldn’t be tolerated. Recent news reports have focused on a handful of department advisers and press officials who had refused to serve him, and Shulkin said Tuesday those people were now reassessing their futures with VA.
“I’m moving forward,” Shulkin said, indicating he planned no immediate firings but that departures may be in the offing. “I’m not spending my time looking for subversion or doing investigations. When it becomes clear to me when people are pursuing different agendas, then I’m going to address that.”
“I suspect that people are right now making decisions on whether they want to be a part of this team or not,” he added.
Shulkin, a former VA undersecretary of health in the Obama administration, has struggled to keep a grip as head of VA after a blistering VA inspector general report earlier this month found that he had improperly accepted Wimbledon tennis tickets. The report also found Shulkin’s former chief of staff, Vivieca Wright Simpson, had lied by doctoring emails to suggest that he was getting an award in order to justify his wife accompanying him at taxpayer expense on an 11-day European trip in July that mixed business and sightseeing.
In the immediate aftermath of the audit, Shulkin vehemently denied any wrongdoing and offered up an explanation surprising to his own personal lawyers that Wright Simpson’s email may have been hacked. With the White House continuing to show support for his leadership, Shulkin has since conceded mistakes in the handling of the Europe trip.
On Tuesday, Shulkin said a VA review had determined that Wright Simpson’s emails were not hacked. That review, finalized late Tuesday by VA inspector general Michael Missal, determined that her emails were instead “spoofed” in a way that was unrelated to the doctoring of emails to help secure free travel for Shulkin’s wife.
“The allegations of ‘hacking’ are limited to unrelated and relatively unsophisticated ‘spoofing’ of Ms. Wright Simpson’s identity through messages sent from an external, non-VA email address,” the IG’s office said late Tuesday.
Shulkin said the incident had been brought to his attention about 10 days ago, and said his misunderstanding of the spoofing attempt had led him to falsely assert that hackers were behind Wright Simpson’s doctored emails.
“This was an isolated incident,” Shulkin said.
His comments come as Congress has remained deadlocked on a long-term plan to overhaul the Veterans Choice program, a Trump campaign priority aimed at expanding private care to veterans at government expense. Major veterans groups including the American Legion fear an aggressive expansion of Choice could lead to undue privatization, which they see as a threat to the viability of VA medical centers. Veterans groups including the Legion are now rallying behind Shulkin amid the travel controversy as the best guardian of VA, which they see as better suited to treat battlefield injuries such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
During the presidential campaign, President Donald Trump repeatedly pledged to fix the VA by bringing accountability and expanding access to private doctors, criticizing the department as “the most corrupt.” At an Ohio event last July, Trump promised to triple the number of veterans “seeing the doctor of their choice.”
Currently, more than 30 percent of VA appointments are made in the private sector.