Fired US Veteran Affairs chief blasts ‘toxic’ environment in Washington

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Former US Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary David Shulkin has blamed his sudden ouster from the Trump administration on “political forces” that he says are bent on privatising the agency and putting “companies with profits” over veterans’ care.

Mr Shulkin, the lone Obama administration holdover serving in President Donald Trump’s Cabinet, blasted a “toxic” and “subversive” environment in Washington that made it impossible for him to lead.

In a tweet late on Wednesday, Mr Trump fired Mr Shulkin, who faced a mounting internal rebellion at VA and a bruising ethics scandal.

“There are many political appointees in the VA that believe that we are moving in the wrong direction or weren’t moving fast enough towards privatising the VA,” he wrote in an op-ed published in The New York Times on Thursday.

Referring to his opponents in both the White House and VA, Mr Shulkin added: “They saw me as an obstacle to privatisation who had to be removed.

“That is because I am convinced that privatisation is a political issue aimed at rewarding select people and companies with profits, even if it undermines care for veterans.”

The issue of privatising VA has been a political hot button since the 2016 campaign, when Mr Trump pledged to aggressively expand veterans’ access to private doctors outside the government-run VA system at taxpayers’ expense in the wake of a 2014 scandal at the Phoenix VA medical centre in which some veterans died while waiting months for medical appointments.

Major veterans groups and Democrats stand opposed to an aggressive expansion, seeing the effort as a potential threat to the viability of VA medical centres.

The firing comes after the VA’s internal watchdog last month concluded that Mr Shulkin had improperly accepted Wimbledon tennis tickets and that his then chief of staff had doctored emails to justify his wife travelling to Europe with him at taxpayers’ expense.

But in the op-ed, Mr Shulkin, a physician, claimed he had been “falsely accused” and blamed the “politically based attacks on me and my family’s character”.

Mr Trump nominated White House doctor Ronny Jackson to replace Mr Shulkin.

A White House official said Mr Shulkin was informed of his dismissal by chief of staff John Kelly on Wednesday afternoon before the president announced the move on Twitter.

Mr Shulkin’s name was scrubbed from the Department of Veterans Affairs website soon after.

He packed up his office and in response to a reporter’s query late on Wednesday dejectedly emailed: “Let’s talk tomorrow — I just need tonight to myself.”

By Thursday morning, he was making rounds with news media, pledging to continue speaking out “against those who seek to harm the VA by prioritising their personal agendas”.

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