N.H. wants VA promises upheld despite firing of Shulkin

  • Former Veterans Affairs secretary David Shulkin speaks at a news conference at the Washington Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Washington on March 7. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 3/29/2018 6:14:30 PM

New Hampshire politicians want the Department of Veterans Affairs to follow through on the promises made by fired VA Secretary David Shulkin to fix the many problems that plague Manchester’s medical facility.

President Donald Trump announced the firing of Shulkin via Twitter on Wednesday and said he would nominate the White House doctor, Navy Rear Adm. Ronny L. Jackson, as the VA’s next secretary.

“The new Secretary of Veterans Affairs should stop at nothing to deliver the best care for our veterans. Commitments were made to New Hampshire’s heroes, and we expect them to be kept,” Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said Thursday.

New Hampshire has the fifth-highest number of veterans per capita in the country, yet it’s the only state in the contiguous 48 states without a full-service medical facility.

Last year, several whistle-blowers came forward with accounts of substandard care at the Manchester VA medical center. Shulkin quickly removed the two top administrators at the facility and launched an investigation.

“Shulkin invested in the issues that had plagued the Manchester VA for years,” Sununu said, “He took direct action, and kick-started meaningful reform at New Hampshire’s Veterans Affairs system.”

Just after the whistleblower accounts were first published in the Boston Globe, five floors of the center were severely damaged from flooding after a pipe burst last summer.

In August, surrounded by top state officials, Shulkin pledged an infusion of $30 million in federal money to upgrade the center.

There are now concerns that Shulkin’s departure could jeopardize the VA’s commitment to improve the facility.

Congresswoman Annie Kuster – the ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations – stressed soon after Shulkin’s firing that “it’s critical that the transition in leadership does not undermine work being done to address deficiencies in care at the Manchester VA Medical Center.”

She said Jackson must honor the promises Shulkin made to New Hampshire veterans to improve the facility and its level of care.

Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter, the Democrat who represents the 1st District, agreed.

“I still expect those commitments to be met. Anything less is unacceptable,” she said.

Dr. Stewart Levenson, one of the top whistleblowers at the Manchester VA and now a Republican candidate vying to challenge Kuster this November, believes the commitments will be upheld despite this latest storm to rock the department.

“It is hoped that because of a solid infrastructure within the VA, they’ll be continuity,” Levenson said.

“While some people may agree or disagree about the need for a full-service medical center, there is no argument that the aging infrastructure in Manchester is not adequately serving the veteran population,” he said.

Marine veteran and state Rep. Al Baldasaro of Londonderry also believes the commitment to fix the Manchester facility will not wither. He praised Alfred Montoya, who took over last year as the center’s director.

“Al Montoya’s doing a great job in Manchester getting it back on track,” said Baldasaro, who was a top adviser on veterans affairs to then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. “We have a World War II model and he’s changing it.”

Shulkin was the first non-veteran to lead the VA and he was the only Trump Cabinet holdover from the Obama administration.

Despite those two factors, he was initially successful in implementing Trump’s pledge to overhaul the VA.

But Shulkin made enemies among the Trump administration’s other political appointees at the department.

And he gave his detractors plenty of ammunition, courtesy of a recent inspector general’s report that harshly criticized Shulkin’s official trip to Europe last spring. The report spotlighted the secretary’s use of taxpayer dollars to bring along his wife – and improperly accepted tickets to Wimbledon for himself and his wife.

“Trump lost confidence in him (Shulkin) and a lot of veterans did, too, because he abused his position,” Baldasaro said. “He was doing a good job, but he abused his position.”

State House of Representatives Democratic leader Steve Shurtleff, a Vietnam War veteran, also pointed to the inspector general’s report.

“He really took a personal interest in what happened at the Manchester VA and was very supportive of the whistleblowers,” Shurtleff said. “But the trip that he and his wife took overseas and the misuse of federal funds really called for his termination.”

Levenson said it was time for Shulkin to go.

“His tenure had too much infighting and a lack of cooperation. We need somebody who’s a unifier, who can take the mission of taking care of our nation’s veterans at the forefront,” he said.

During his time as Trump’s VA secretary, Shulkin resisted efforts by other political appointees to privatize the department.

Kuster said she has “serious concerns” that Shulkin’s firing “will strengthen efforts to privatize operations within the Department of Veterans Affairs.”

But Baldasaro, who touted that he helped write the Trump campaign’s plan for the VA, said that the president doesn’t want to privatize the department.

“He’s looking for competition within the VA so the VA can do a lot better business. There’s no interest in privatizing. I have no interest in privatizing,” he said.

There are also concerns that Jackson may not be up to the task of running the federal government’s second-largest department, after the Department of Defense.

Maura Sullivan, a former assistant secretary of Veterans Affairs who is running for Shea-Porter’s seat in Congress as a Democrat, said partisan politics should stay out of veterans’ health care.

“As a former assistant secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs and a combat veteran myself, I am disheartened and outraged to see the Department of Veterans Affairs roiled by partisan politics,” she said. “This is exactly what is wrong with our politics and Washington today.”

Sullivan questioned Jackson’s ability to lead the department.

“I am counting on the Senate to ask whether he has the health care management expertise and experience required to lead the more than 1,000 health care facilities that serve over 9 million enrolled veterans as part of the nation’s largest integrated health care system,” she said.

Shurtleff echoed similar concerns.

“I know he’s an extremely competent physician,” Shurtleff said. “But he’s never had any command experience.”

“I hope he’s up to the task for his sake,” Shurtleff added. “But more importantly for the sake of New Hampshire’s veterans.”

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