High Turnover at Veterans Affairs Raises Concerns About Trump Agenda
WASHINGTON, D.C. – July 19, 2018
Trump has set his sights on the Department of Veterans Affairs and a lot of people aren't happy about it.
Amid high-level turnover at the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, Trump administration critics are expressing alarm over whether politics is playing a role in the recent wave of removals, reassignments and retirements.
The department is currently run by Acting Secretary Peter O’Rourke and has been without a Senate-confirmed leader for months. The last Senate-confirmed Veterans Affairs secretary, Dr. David J. Shulkin, had supporters from both parties during the early days of the Trump administration. But his reputation suffered after a scathing agency report in February about money the government had spent on a 10-day business trip he took to Europe with his wife. Trump fired Dr. Shulkin with a tweet in March and sought to replace him with his White House physician, Dr. Ronny L. Jackson.
That nomination fell through, and Robert Wilkie, a former acting secretary who also served as the under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, took over as acting secretary. When his nomination was announced in May, Mr. Wilkie stepped aside to begin his confirmation process, and Mr. O’Rourke took the helm. If confirmed, Mr. Wilkie would take over the second-largest department in the federal government, overseeing a 360,000-person work force.
However, several longtime employees have recently left the Department. The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that several unnamed current and former employees had raised alarms over what appeared to be a purge or reassignment of more than a dozen officials who were not loyal to the Trump administration.
“It’s been 112 days since the V.A. had a Senate-confirmed secretary in place, and many talented people have departed leadership positions within the V.A. over the past four months,” Joe Plenzler, a spokesman for the American Legion, a veterans service organization, said in an email on Wednesday.
“The Veterans Health Administration alone has more than 33,000 job vacancies representing a staffing deficit of almost 10 percent of their overall work force,” he added. “The American Legion has been sounding the alarm over this critical issue.”
Because of the major changes on the table at the Veterans Affairs Department, the high-level staff changes have been of particular concern.
Representative Elizabeth Esty, a Democrat from Connecticut who serves on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, raised concerns about the politicization of the department with Mr. O’Rourke during a hearing on Tuesday.
“During your tenure, our committee has been made aware of a significant number of career employees who have served under multiple secretaries,” she said. “These employees have been removed, demoted or reassigned, or they’ve resigned or retired after being made aware of adverse actions coming their way.”
According to Ms. Esty, in the past month, there were “three high-level career retirements of key positions” at the V.A., an unusual number considering the short time span — and the fact that the departures happened under an acting secretary who had not gone through the Senate confirmation process.
“That combination does raise concern,” Ms. Esty said, since the department will be making important decisions on issues including health care privatization, disability appeals reform and an expansion of caregiver support for veterans.
“It is concerning not to have that institutional knowledge there,” she said.
However, according to Curt Cashour, the agency’s press secretary, the reshuffle in the Department has nothing to do with politics.
He said the V.A. had “made groundbreaking progress, particularly in the areas of accountability, transparency and efficiency across the department” during the Trump administration.
“This has understandably shaken up V.A.’s Washington bureaucracy,” Mr. Cashour added, “and in many cases, employees who were wedded to the status quo and not on board with this administration’s policies have departed V.A. — some willingly, some against their will as they were about to be fired.”
The Department is working to revamp its health care system after President Trump last month signed a legislative overhaul bill to consolidate programs and make it easier for veterans to take their benefits to private doctors for care. Democrats and some large veterans groups and moderate Republicans criticize the president’s plan, saying that the plan is designed for the benefit of private medical companies while starving the agency’s budget.