The secretary of Veterans Affairs is not mincing words about Texas church gunman Devin Kelley’s military service.
“He served in the Air Force. But he was dishonorably discharged. I do not consider him a veteran,” Secretary David Shulkin told “CBS This Morning” co-host Norah O’Donnell. “I consider him a criminal. And while I don’t know the motivation why anybody would do such a horrific act, and whether there was a component of mental illness, I consider this an evil man who would do what he did.”
O’Donnell spoke to Shulkin Tuesday at a VA medical facility in New York and asked about the role his agency might have played in preventing the shooting.
“The VA does not care for dishonorably discharged people who have left the service,” Shulkin said.
“So he wouldn’t have been able to seek mental health help at the VA,” O’Donnell said.
“No… One of the first acts that I did as secretary, is that I extended mental health services to those that were other-than-honorably discharged,” Shulkin said. “But when you’re dishonorably discharged, as this gentleman was, it’s because you’ve committed a crime and really did something horrific. So we do not take care of them in the VA system. And frankly, people who have worn the uniform don’t wanna be associated with people like that.”
Nearly 10 months ago, President-elect Trump tapped Shulkin, then-VA undersecretary, to lead the nation’s second-largest federal agency behind the Pentagon. The Obama administration appointee said he was surprised to be chosen.
“But when I look back upon it, it makes sense,” Shulkin said. “The president is aligned with where Congress is, where I am, which is that our veterans deserve better. And we just have to make the decisions to fix the system.”
Shulkin wasn’t a big name when he took the helm of the country’s largest healthcare system, but as secretary of VA, his name does get frequently mentioned. He’s worked quickly to change the VA, getting bipartisan laws passed to boost accountability and fulfilling a campaign promise for his boss.
“Are you his favorite Cabinet secretary?” O’Donnell asked.
“Oh, I don’t – I wouldn’t say that. I think, you know, the president certainly feels passionate about veterans… and I think that he’s proud of the progress that we’re making,” Shulkin said.
“But you were the undersecretary of health at the VA when Trump was running for president. And he called the VA a broken system, a disaster. What changed his perspective of the VA?” O’Donnell asked.
“You know, I don’t disagree with the president. This is a system that has lots of problems. And you have to recognize and acknowledge the problems if you’re going to fix them,” Shulkin said.
For years the VA has struggled to modernize and to overcome fallout from a massive wait list scandal in which dozens of veterans died waiting for care.
“After everything that’s happened, and after Congress approving $10 billion, so veterans can go outside the system to get care, why is the number of veterans waiting more than 30 days, bigger than it was three years ago?” O’Donnell asked.
“First of all, we’ve increased the number of appointments that we see in the VA by several million appointments since 2014. So what you’re seeing is a system that’s experiencing tremendous demand for its services,” Shulkin said, referring to veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“One of the things most Americans don’t understand is that, when you send men and women off to war, it sometimes takes decades before you see the impact of that demand,” Shulkin said.
With the $10 billion Choice Program set to expire, Shulkin said Congress needs to make sure it becomes “a permanent part of a program that supports veterans going on in the future.”
“Otherwise we risk running out of money and putting veterans back into the type of waitlist situation that we saw many years ago,” Shulkin said.
It’s a scenario Shulkin seems determined to avoid. A trained physician, he continues to see patients at the VA, hoping to restore them and their system to good health.
“There have been reports that you’ve been interviewed for the Health and Human Secretary’s job. Would you take that job?” O’Donnell asked.
“First of all, those reports aren’t true. I’ve not been interviewed. I am committed to starting – finishing the job that I started… That’s where I wanna be. Of course, I serve at the pleasure of the president,” Shulkin said.
“I think anybody who serves the president is there to serve the country. And of course, we would do what the president wants us to do,” Shulkin added. “But the president knows, he and I have discussed, that I feel committed to the Veterans Administration, and that I feel that we’re making great progress. And I don’t wanna interrupt that.”
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