Roe, supporter of ousted VA Secretary, says goodbye

Nathan Baker • Mar 29, 2018 at 8:38 PM

Johnson City lawmaker Phil Roe, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, remained a strong supporter of former Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin up until President Donald Trump announced Wednesday on Twitter he was replacing the Cabinet member with his White House doctor.

The Republican representative told the Kingsport Times-News editorial board this month he did not believe Trump would fire Shulkin.

On Wednesday, after Trump tweeted his thanks to Shulkin for his service and announced his nomination of White House Dr. Ronny L. Jackson for the post, an emailed statement released by Roe’s office praised Shulkin.

“At the end of the day, cabinet secretaries serve at the pleasure of the president,” the statement read. “I have enjoyed getting to know Secretary Shulkin, and I’m glad to call David a friend. I think he’s done a fantastic job and I hate to see him go. That said, I respect President Trump’s decision, support the president’s agenda and remain willing to work with anyone committed to doing the right thing on behalf of our nation’s veterans.

“I am in the process of reaching out to Dr. Jackson and I look forward to building a strong relationship with him also.”

In February, Roe dismissed an inspector general’s report that implicated Shulkin’s office in altering documents to convince the federal government to pay for his wife’s airfare and accused him of improperly accepting gifted tickets to a Wimbledon tennis match.

“I’ve had a chance to talk to the (inspector general), I’ve written a letter to the (inspector general), we’re going to dig further, we didn’t just stop,” Roe said on a Feb. 15 conference call with media, before saying Shulkin was “doing one of the best jobs,” and “We’ve got the right person at the helm of the VA right now.”

On Thursday, apparently freed from his employment obligations to the federal government, Shulkin told multiple news agencies he believed his ousting was influenced by political forces within the Trump administration that want to privatize the VA.

“They saw me as an obstacle to privatization who had to be removed,” Shulkin wrote in a New York Times op-ed Thursday. “As I prepare to leave government, I am struck by a recurring thought: It should not be this hard to serve your country.”

Some veterans advocacy groups and Democratic lawmakers have criticized recent efforts to expand the Veterans Choice Program, which allows veterans to seek care from private physicians if they live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or have waited more than 30 days for care.

It was enacted in 2014, when the VA system was swamped in scandal over months-long wait times, during which some veterans awaiting treatment died. The Choice Program was supposed to be a temporary measure while Congress overhauled the VA to correct systemic problems.

Recently, some lawmakers have discussed expanding the program or making it permanent.

Before his removal, Shulkin supported removing the wait time and geographic distance restrictions, but said he was against making the Choice Program completely open-ended, cautioning that it could siphon funding away from the VA.

Roe, in interviews and hearings about the program’s future, said its purpose was to strengthen and support the VA, not privatize its services.

“I believe it is important to state yet again that this effort is in no way, shape or form intended to create a pipeline to privatize the VA healthcare system,” he said during a Committee on Veterans Affairs hearing.

Lawmakers expect to revisit the program sometime this year.

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