VA chief to reimburse for wife's travel, tickets

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin is looking to put a highly charged oversight report behind him as he presses for his 2019 budget request.

Shulkin testifies HVAC 2 15 18
 

VA Secretary David Shulkin testifies at a Feb. 15 hearing.

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin told lawmakers at a Feb. 15 House hearing that he would pay back costs of travel and Wimbledon tennis tickets from a European trip in July, one day after the agency's inspector general released a report alleging improper gifts and expenses.

Shulkin's wife accompanied the VA delegation on the trip, which included a medical conference with U.S. allies. The IG report determined not only that her travel should not have been paid for by the government, but also that the couple accepted gifts in violation of government standards and that VA officials altered documents to make it seem as though Shulkin's wife's travel should be authorized.

Shulkin still disputes much of the substance of the report, and defended the conduct of his chief of staff, the number-three official at VA, who could be facing disciplinary consequences as a result of the findings. But he reiterated a pledge, first made in a Feb. 14 interview, to pay back some of the costs cited in the IG report in the interest of keeping his focus on passing a budget to support veterans.

"We care deeply about this subject, and it's the reason why, to keep the attention focused on the important things, that I've made the decision to reimburse the Treasury, to follow the IG recommendations, and I'm committed to doing what we have to do to focus on veterans and make this better," he said at a Feb. 15 hearing of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

Shulkin suggested in a Feb. 14 Politico interview that an altered email thread cited in the IG report, which suggests VA Chief of Staff Vivieca Wright Simpson changed key documentation in Shulkin's travel request, could be the result of hacking.

Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), the ranking member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, told Shulkin he takes that allegation seriously. Later in the day Walz sent a letter of referral to the Justice Department urging that they investigate.

"These allegations from the VA Secretary that the third senior-most official at VA may have been the target of criminals committing fraud and computer intrusion with the intention of harming her reputation, and that these criminal activities took place on VA computers and networks are very serious," Walz wrote. "I refer these claims of email intrusion and tampering on government computers and networks, and whether other cyber crimes have been committed against senior-level VA officials or on VA computers and its network for your review."

Most committee members made some mention of the report, but the hearing focused on VA's 2019 $198.6 billion budget request. Only Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), a frequent critic of the department's woes in constructing a hospital in his district, has called for Shulkin's resignation.

The budget includes a new $1.2 billion budget line for electronic health record modernization. Shulkin is expected to sign a contract with Cerner for an estimated $10 billion to acquire a commercial health record system similar to and fully interoperable with the system currently being implemented by the Department of Defense.

Shulkin stressed that the 10-year transition to a new system was both an infrastructure problem and a business challenge.

"In order to implement a new electronic medical record, we're going to have to invest in the infrastructure of our connectivity, of our servers to get ready to do that," he said. "We're going to have to undergo significant change management because when you implement an EHR it's about technology but only a little bit -- it's about how you do business."

Shulkin also indicated his willingness to request a waiver from the administration's proposed pay freeze, if efforts to make pay competitive under his existing authorities didn't suffice.

"We are competing particularly in health care but in all aspects of VA to get the very best employees, and we know where we don't have competitive salaries that our vacancies stay open or we get the wrong people into the organization, so it essential that we remain competitive on benefits and salary," he said. "If it got to the point where I was not able to recruit the people that our veterans deserve to have caring for them, I would absolutely ask for a waiver."

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