A mixed message to vets: Veterans groups weren't invited to Trump's first VA "listening session"

Groups like American Legion and Disabled American Veterans were surprised to hear of Tuesday's White House meeting

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published February 7, 2017 8:45PM (EST)

 (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

President Trump held a series of so-called White House listening sessions with various groups Monday, providing the nation more images of himself at work with some of the country's most influential leaders. In an unusual move for the president, Trump passed up a photo-op when he kicked out the press just before the start of his meeting on veterans affairs -- perhaps because the president failed to invite any of the nation's leading veterans advocacy groups.

According to the Military Times, officials from the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans and the Veterans of Foreign Wars first heard of Trump's White House meeting when it was announced Monday night. Other prominent veterans groups like VoteVets, which released a scathing ad directed at the president Monday, also did not attend the meeting Tuesday. In December, dozens of veterans groups met with members of Trump's transition team for roughly two hours, but not with the then-president-elect himself.

Toby Cosgrove, CEO of the Cleveland Clinic, who was invited to the White House Tuesday, said after the meeting that the discussion had ranged "from governance to modernization to accountability across the organization." Trump promised in January that, “We're gonna set up a group. These are hospitals that have been the top of the line, the absolute top of the line. And they're going to get together with their great doctors … and we're gonna straighten out the VA for our veterans.”

Trump's pick to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, David Shulkin, did attend the White House meeting hours before his confirmation vote in the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs. Despite his campaign proclamations that “President Obama has allowed our Veterans Affairs health-care system to deny help and support to those who deserve it most,” Trump promoted Obama’s VA undersecretary of health to a Cabinet position.

At his confirmation hearing last week, Shulkin appeared to push back against some of Trump's most extreme reform proposals.

The VA is "a unique national resource that is worth saving, and I am committed to doing just that,” Shulkin told senators. In October, Trump said, “The Veterans Administration is a disaster.”

During the campaign, Trump described the VA as “the most corrupt” and “probably the most incompetently run” of all federal agencies. The president has said he wants to create a 24-hour White House hotline to register complaints about the agency, have a commission investigate wrongdoing and fire and discipline VA employees. Trump has also proposed giving veterans the option to seek private health care if they want to bypass the government-run system.

"The American Legion absolutely opposes privatization," executive director Verna Jones told Military.com after meeting with Trump's transition team in December. "We strongly advocate for a healthy VA health care system for veterans." The group was not invited to Tuesday's White House meeting.

Shulkin, a physician who would be the first nonveteran to lead the government’s second-largest agency, is generally supported by the largest veterans’ organizations, who have praised steps begun under President Obama to address the VA’s problems.

Harvard Business School case study published in November said the VA had “made impressive progress over the past year.” A RAND Corp. literature review published by the Journal of General Internal Medicine in July found the “VA often (but not always) performs better than or similarly to other systems of care with regard to the safety and effectiveness of care.”

While Trump's decision to stick with Shulkin is comforting to some veterans advocacy groups, one of his first acts as president was so alarming that even congressional Republicans made the rare move of publicly criticizing Trump.

The top Senate and House Republicans on veterans issues called on Trump last month to exempt doctors and nurses at the VA from his executive order implementing a federal hiring freeze. As the Military Times reported last November, veterans now comprise roughly one-third of the federal workforce.

"One of our government's highest priorities -- and VA's single most important mission -- is to provide timely, high-quality care to the men and women who have bravely served our nation in uniform," Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., said in a letter to Trump.

“Right now there are 45,000 vacancies at the VA that need to be filled immediately. This freeze will only make wait times longer and accessing care more difficult,” Will Fischer of the Union Veterans Council recently told the New Republic.

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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