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Has Secretary Shulkin’s Ouster Opened the Door for VA Privatization?

When President Trump fired David Shulkin last March, the outgoing VA Secretary took the opportunity to warn about a change of course that he viewed as dangerous. In an op-ed for The New York Times, he wrote: “The advocates within the administration for privatizing VA health services…saw me as an obstacle to privatization who had to be removed.” Shulkin expressed concern that patient care would suffer in a private sector that “is ill-prepared to handle the number and complexity of patients that would come from closing or downsizing VA hospitals and clinics.”

The VA denied there was any behind-the-scenes jockeying for privatization, issuing a statement that read, “There is no effort underway to privatize VA, and to suggest otherwise is completely false and a red herring designed to distract and avoid honest debate on the real issues surrounding veterans’ health care.” However, since Shulkin’s ouster, the voices advocating privatization seem to be rising.

Trump has said, “Veterans should be guaranteed the right to choose their doctor and clinics, whether at a VA facility or at a private medical center. We must extend this right to all veterans.” While this is not a call to dissolve the VA, the president’s statement does favor further liberalization of veterans’ rights to seek treatment outside a VA facility. Advocates for a stronger VA, such as the American Legion, oppose privatization, and fear that further expansion of veterans’ rights to seek private sector care will undermine the government’s commitment to the VA to the detriment of veterans who need specialized care.

White House physician Ronny Jackson, Mr. Trump’s first nominee to replace Shulkin, was seen as an advocate of the path Shulkin resisted. But he withdrew his name from consideration after a wave of negative publicity. The president then nominated Robert Wilkie, then acting secretary of the VA. As acting secretary, Wilkie followed through on one Shulkin initiative: signing “a multi-billion dollar, multi-year contract” Shulkin had awarded to IT giant Cerner to “replace the VA’s outdated electronic health records system.” However, Wilkie is seen as a supporter of the recently passed VA MISSION Act of 2018, which bolsters the agency but also expands the rights of veterans to seek treatment from private healthcare providers outside the VA system.

President Trump praised the new law, predicting it would “transform the Department of Veterans Affairs into a high-performing and integrated healthcare system for the 21st century and provide veterans with more choice in their healthcare options, whether from VA doctors or from the community.” The law has received praise from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, whose spokesman said it “strik[es] the right balance in order to make sure veterans have the best care possible.” But other groups, such as the American Federation of Government Employees, panned the law as “an extremely dangerous step toward privatization.”

If confirmed by the Senate, Secretary Wilkie will have to contend with forces that are as polarized as any in American politics. That’s a shame, since our duty to care for service members who have sacrificed on our behalf should be placed high above political squabbling. We continue to hope for a strong turnaround for the VA for the sake of our veterans.

The VA benefits attorneys at Marcari, Russotto, Spencer & Balaban have more than 200 years of combined legal experience. To learn how we can help with an appeal of denied disability benefits, call 866-866-VETS or contact our office online.

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