A "brutal power struggle" and clash of agendas in a "toxic, chaotic, disrespectful and subversive" atmosphere -- this is how former Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin described his final months within the agency that works to provide care for Americans returning home from war.
Writing for The New York Times, Shulkin pointed to political attacks and false accusations as the driving forces behind his exit, and he promised to continue fighting against those who seek to privatize veterans' care even as he resumes life and work outside of Washington.
I believe differences in philosophy deserve robust debate, and solutions should be determined based on the merits of the arguments. The advocates within the administration for privatizing V.A. health services, however, reject this approach. They saw me as an obstacle to privatization who had to be removed. That is because I am convinced that privatization is a political issue aimed at rewarding select people and companies with profits, even if it undermines care for veterans.
The agency Shulkin led has had a troubled past, but he pointed to progress made under his watch:
We passed critical legislation that improved the appeals process for veterans seeking disability benefits, enacted a new G.I. Bill and helped ensure that we employ the right people to work at the department.
We have expanded access to health care by reducing wait times, increasing productivity and working more closely with the private sector.
We have put in place more and better mental health services for those suffering from the invisible wounds of war.
We are now processing more disability claims and appeals than ever before and, for the first time, allowing veterans to see the status of their appeals by simply logging on to their accounts.
Unemployment among veterans is near its lowest level in years, at 3.5 percent, and the percent of veterans who have regained trust in V.A. services has risen to 70 percent, from 46 percent four years ago.
These successes cement for Shulkin that his ouster had everything to do with his refusal to participate in the privatization of veterans' care, saying the department has "become entangled in a brutal power struggle" pitting the agenda of political appointees against what Shulkin sees as putting the interests of veterans first.
These individuals, who seek to privatize veteran health care as an alternative to government-run V.A. care, unfortunately fail to engage in realistic plans regarding who will care for the more than 9 million veterans who rely on the department for life-sustaining care.
Why does Shulkin believe privatizing that life-sustaining care would be foolish and detrimental to the well-being of America's veterans?
The private sector, already struggling to provide adequate access to care in many communities, is ill-prepared to handle the number and complexity of patients that would come from closing or downsizing V.A. hospitals and clinics, particularly when it involves the mental health needs of people scarred by the horrors of war. Working with community providers to adequately ensure that veterans’ needs are met is a good practice.
But privatization leading to the dismantling of the department’s extensive health care system is a terrible idea. The department’s understanding of service-related health problems, its groundbreaking research and its special ability to work with military veterans cannot be easily replicated in the private sector.
Shulkin said he will continue to fight against "those who seek to harm the V.A. by putting their personal agendas in front of the well-being of our veterans".
And his final parting thought:
As I prepare to leave government, I am struck by a recurring thought: It should not be this hard to serve your country.