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How Veteran Groups Are Reacting To The Departure Of VA Secretary Shulkin


What happens when you're an advocate for veterans and the Veterans Affairs secretary is removed?

GARRY AUGUSTINE: My phone was blowing up last night (laughter). Obviously the rumors have been flying for the last few weeks. However, nothing was confirmed. There were a lot of names that were floated around. And, you know, that's unsettling, I'm sure, especially for folks at the VA.

CORNISH: That's Garry Augustine of the Disabled American Veterans. He was telling us what happened when he heard the news that David Shulkin had been fired and that Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson would be nominated to head the VA. I asked him what he thought of Secretary Shulkin's comment that he believes he was an obstacle to privatization who had to be removed.

AUGUSTINE: I don't think there's any secret that there are groups that are very committed to trying to offer more opportunity for veterans to go outside the system. Dr. Shulkin was working very closely with the veterans' service organizations to try to come up with a medium ground where...

CORNISH: Because I assume you are against that move, right?

AUGUSTINE: That's correct.


AUGUSTINE: Yes. So the DAV has been very adamant that we would like to see an integrated health care system, opportunities to go outside the system when necessary because of access issues. But that decision should remain in the VA.

CORNISH: In the past, the VA has been run by a former CEO, a retired four-star general and now Dr. Shulkin, a bureaucrat leaving the agency. It hasn't been easy for any of them. And what is it like for you as an advocate - right? - for the needs of veterans when the leadership of the VA is always changing?

AUGUSTINE: Well, we're used to it. We've been around 98 years now. So obviously we're used to that change that comes with every administration. But I will tell you there have been a number of legislative victories that have happened over the last year during Dr. Shulkin's tenure as secretary. Some of those are the only legislative victories that this administration saw at the early part of their tenure. So we were very confused when this all came up. The president himself said very nice things about the secretary.

CORNISH: What is your message to the lawmakers who might be listening, the people who may have to approve of this new selection?

AUGUSTINE: I know because I've been through these confirmation processes before that they'll ask the tough questions. And we hope to know more about this nominee as he goes through that process as to what his philosophy is because he's a bit of an unknown. That doesn't mean he can't do this. But it just means it's going to make it a huge learning curve for him to come in and learn about the second-largest bureaucracy, a health care system that is the largest health care system in America, serving 9 million veterans. We hope that he will reach out to us and work with us so that he can let us help him succeed because ultimately that's what we're looking for, is to help the VA succeed.

CORNISH: David Shulkin also made the comment that, quote, "it should not be this hard to serve your country." And he says the agency has been politicized, that there's a lot of infighting. What concerns do you have about how this affects any leader's chances going forward?

AUGUSTINE: Well, I think it's more important about how it affects veterans of America. Since all of this infighting that you mentioned has been going on, things haven't been getting accomplished at the VA like they should. There is a lot of unrest, uncertainty. We've heard stories where people don't know who to listen to. Sometimes they're told to do one thing by one group and then told by another group, no, that's not how you should do it. And because of that, it causes them not to be doing anything. And that's not good for veterans. And that's not good for the VA.

CORNISH: Garry Augustine is executive director of Disabled American Veterans in the Washington office. Thank you for coming in to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

AUGUSTINE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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