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Bad News and Worse News at the VA

Friday February 23rd, 2018   •   Posted by Craig Eyermann at 5:34am PST   •  

There is both bad news and worse news to report about the VA’s ongoing scandals of waste, fraud and abuse.

First, the bad news. The Department of Vetarans Affairs is now immersed in a new scandal, one that reaches all the way up to the top ranks of the federal agency. Gabby Morrongiello of the Washington Times reports on a misuse of taxpayer funds that allowed VA Secretary David Shulkin to go on a travel junket to Europe with his wife at taxpayer expense.

The Department of Veterans Affairs watchdog released a report Wednesday that said the head of the agency, Secretary David Shulkin, improperly accepted tickets to Wimbledon and used taxpayer funds to cover his wife’s airfare during a European trip last July.

According to the VA inspector general report, the 11-day trip cost taxpayers more than $122,000 and was subsequently misrepresented to ethics lawyers after Shulkin returned to the U.S.

Shulkin’s chief of staff, Viveca Wright Simpson, doctored an official email in order to secure taxpayer funding for the travel costs associated with his wife’s flight for the trip, which ended up totaling more than $4,000, the inspector general concluded.

Shulkin himself misrepresented how he obtained tickets to the Wimbledon tennis tournament in his conversations with ethics officials. Shulkin claimed he had received them as a gift from a close personal friend, when in fact, the woman who provided the tickets had only met the VA secretary three times.

“After a thorough investigation, OIG’s findings included the Chief of Staff’s alteration of a document and misrepresentations to ethics officials caused Secretary Shulkin’s wife to be approved as an ‘invitational traveler,’ which authorized VA to pay her travel costs [and] Secretary Shulkin improperly accepted a gift of Wimbledon tickets and related hospitality,” the report read.

The inspector general said the trip led to a “misuse of VA resources” and employees’ time since at least one staffer served “as a personal travel concierge to plan tourist activities” for Shulkin and his wife. The secretary, who was slated to attend a conference on veterans’ affairs in London and meet with Danish and British officials, was accompanied on the trip by three other top-level agency staffers and a six-member security detail.

Although centered around Shulkin, who had previously been appointed by President Obama to serve at the VA and who was promoted by President Trump to clean up the department, the new scandal really illustrates the extent to which corruption has become entrenched throughout the VA. Vivieca Wright Simpson, who has resigned within the last week, was previously implicated in efforts to cover up the VA’s wait list scandal, where VA officials had rationed health care to veterans by maintaining a secret wait list for veterans seeking treatment at the VA while making it appear they were meeting the department’s goals and allow them to collect performance bonuses. The Washington Examiner‘s Pete Kasperowicz has that aspect of the story:

A Department of Veterans Affairs official accused of altering an email to get a free trip to Europe for Secretary David Shulkin’s wife is the same official who tried to hide the VA waitlist scandal from Congress in 2014….

Wright Simpson is the same person who in 2014 tried to get VA employees to hide evidence of the VA wait-time scandal from members of Congress.

At the time, CNN reported that two lawmakers complained that their efforts to discover more about that scandal were stymied by Wright Simpson.

When Reps. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., and Mike Doyle, D-Pa., called the VA to ask about a glowing report from the Pittsburgh VA, they were told by an official that he was told not to tell lawmakers about the extent of the waitlist problem.

“Specifically, congressional sources say, Wolf said she was told not to do so by Gary Devansky of the Pittsburgh-based Veterans Integrated Service Network 4, on behalf of Vivieca Wright, the Veterans Health Administration’s Director of Network Support,” CNN reported.

Her involvement in the scandal that rocked the VA in 2014 didn’t hurt Wright Simpson’s career prospects. In 2017, the VA named her as the department’s interim chief of staff, and she has since taken on that role in an official capacity.

Noted VA whistleblower Scott Davis said Wright Simpson’s involvement shows the “corrosive culture” at the VA under the Obama administration has continued under Trump.

Indeed it does. For his part, David Shulkin is apparently seeking to restore his reputation after having it tarnished in the VA’s travel scandal.‘s Richard Sisk reports on the latest twist to come out of the VA’s travelgate scandal:

The Department of Veterans affairs became the department of intrigue Wednesday as Secretary Dr. David Shulkin claimed a White House mandate to purge those plotting against him at the agency.

In phone calls to several news outlets, Shulkin said he would be staying in the job despite the uproar over his travel expenses and now had administration approval to clean house of insiders at the VA who sought to take him down.

Shulkin told Politico he was the victim of “subversion” from within, and issued a warning that “Those who crossed the line in the past are going to have to be accountable for those decisions.”

Amen to that, although we would recognize that mandate would now be held by either Shulkin or his replacement should the travel scandal prove to claim his career in public service at the VA.

For now however, Shulkin would appear to be safe in his position, where his previous work to improve access to medical care to the nation’s veterans has bought him some time. Sisk continues reporting, which is where the worse news for the VA comes into play:

Shulkin’s apparent success in keeping the job came after several Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) representing millions of vets backed his retention Tuesday.

The VSOs said they were disappointed by the findings of the IG’s report but saw Shulkin, the only holdover from the Obama administration in the Trump Cabinet, as a hedge against over reliance on the Veterans Choice Program, which allows vets to opt for private or community care.

The VSOs have consistently warned that the Trump administration’s push to expand Choice would eventually lead to the gutting of the VA’s health care system, the nation’s largest with 170 hospitals and more than 1,200 outpatient facilities serving nine million vets annually.

“While we were disappointed to learn of the recent issue with the Secretary’s travel, we believe that the current controversy surrounding the Secretary is part of a larger effort to remove him and install others who would take steps to privatize the services provided to our nation’s heroes,” Denise Rohan, national commander of the two-million member American Legion, said in a statement.

What the VSOs fail to recognize is that the government’s role in directly providing single-payer style health care to the nation’s veterans who were not allowed to seek care elsewhere is what allowed corruption to become institutionalized at all levels of the department in the first place, where the bureaucrats in the department could routinely put their own interests ahead of the veterans they claim to serve with impunity.

Breaking the unethical monopoly of the VA’s health care system for the nation’s veterans may be the only recourse that veterans and taxpayers have to break the chains of corruption at a government department whose bureaucrats are proving to be too intransigent to reform. The VSOs seeking to sustain the VA’s health care system as it is today had better hope that new accountability reforms become law and prove to be effective in cleaning house at the scandal plagued department.

Otherwise, it will be the veterans that they claim to serve who will continue to pay the price.

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February 2018