Shulkin’s future at the VA remains tenuous

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It is often said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. If I were VA Secretary David Shulkin, I would brush up on the history of my predecessor, Charles R. Forbes.

Forbes was the VA’s founding director, and he lasted only eighteen months before being forced to step down due to various allegations of scandal, including receiving kickbacks from contractors in connection with the construction of new VA hospitals.

{mosads}Although Forbes reputation through the years remained that of a disgraced criminal, more recent analysis of the situation suggests that Forbes may have been an unfortunate political scapegoat who found himself on the losing end of a political loyalty battle, rather than a man of disreputable character.


As Shulkin’s future at the VA remains tenuous, he appears poised to potentially suffer the same fate as Forbes. Accordingly, the question then becomes, is Shulkin yet another bad actor at the VA, or just another political scapegoat?

Forbes served under President Warren G. Harding. Harding campaigned and governed on a platform of bringing greater efficiency to government, frequently advocating for private business-style organization and accountability; a mantra that sounds very familiar to that of our current administration, particularly in the context of veterans issues.

However, the Harding administration quickly succumbed to scandal — not just at the Veterans Bureau, as it was then known, but at the Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior, culminating in the Teapot Dome scandal.

As outlined in the book, “A Time of Scandal and the Making of the Veterans Bureau,” by Rosemary Stevens, Harding’s ultimate undoing was overvaluing loyalty and friendship in appointing cabinet and other high-ranking administration officials, rather than balancing favor with contextual experience and knowledge.

Turning to the current palace intrigue at the VA, it appears that the department is currently suffering from the same fate as its original appointees did; Trump has favored the perspectives of his most loyal advisors and friends over those with known policy expertise in the veterans space.  

And, unfortunately for veterans, exploiting one’s rivals for political gain seldom leads to good policy.

Like Forbes, Shulkin has made some rookie mistakes in the political arena. Both Forbes and Shulkin were overly trusting of those around them, which resulted in a contracting scandal for Forbes and issues surrounding government-paid travel for Shulkin.

More importantly, however, Forbes and Shulkin clashed with some of the President’s most trusted advisors to their personal detriment.  

Forbes clashed with Major General Charles E. Sawyer, the White House physician and one of Harding’s friends from his home state of Ohio. As a result, Sawyer exploited the contracting issue at Perryville supply depot to have Forbes ousted from office. Although Forbes was ultimately found guilty of accepting bribes at Perryville, the issue was ultimately about control, access, and trying to appease the President, not the actual price of the contracted goods.

Both Sawyer and Dr. Joel Boone, one of Sawyers’ colleagues at the White House, actively lobbied the President to get rid of Forbes by repeatedly bringing concerns about the Perryville supply depot into the news.

Fast forward nearly 100 years later, and the head of the VA is once again clashing with administration officials and political appointees over issues of access and control. 

The Washington Post recently revealed an email from Jake Leinenkugel, one of Trump’s trusted political appointees, advocating for Shulkin’s ouster. In addition, John Ulyot, Assistant Secretary of the Office of Public and Intergovernment Affairs, and Curt Cashour, Press Secretary also called the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee asking for the Committee’s support in removing Shulkin.

Similar to how Sawyer and Boone communicated with Harding, Trump’s advisors appear to be exploiting Shulkin’s travel faux pas in order to coordinate his resignation and ensure a more prominent place for themselves within the administration.

VA’s problems with access to care for veterans are systemic in nature and, although a strong leader is required to correct systemic problems, stability in leadership is required as well. The more the administration focuses on who is in charge, the less they are focused on implementing reform.

As once stated by Newt Gingrich in the context of government accountability, “until someone is prepared to lay out the systemic problem, we will simply go through cycles of finding corruption, finding a scapegoat, and eliminating the scapegoat and relaxing until we find the next scandal.”

Although Gingrich himself is a controversial figure, his description of systemic problems in government is spot on in describing the VA throughout its history. Rather than consistently finding a convenient scapegoat, we must focus on resolving the deeper issues at the department, including what it’s future relationship looks like with those in the private sector, and not resting until the deeper issues are resolved, rather than waiting for the next cycle of corruption and scapegoat.

Although “scandal, controversy and veterans care in the United States have gone hand-in-hand for virtually as long as there’s been a republic” it doesn’t have to be that way. Whether Shulkin remains in the top spot at VA or not, let’s stop talking about his European travel and start talking about how to implement true VA reform.

Rory E. Riley-Topping has dedicated her career to ensuring accountability within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to care for our nation’s veterans. She is the principal at Riley-Topping Consulting and has served in a legal capacity for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, the National Veterans Legal Services Program, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, and the Department of Veterans Affairs, and can be reached on Twitter @RileyTopping.

Tags Aftermath of war Charles R. Forbes David Shulkin David Shulkin Military Presidency of Warren G. Harding United States Department of Veterans Affairs United States federal executive departments United States Secretary of Veterans Affairs Veteran Veterans Health Administration

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