Critics of Trump’s Veterans Affairs Dept. Raise Concerns About Departures

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Amid high-level turnover at the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, Trump administration critics are expressing alarm over whether politics is playing a role in the recent wave of removals, reassignments and retirements.

The department is currently run by Acting Secretary Peter O’Rourke and has been without a Senate-confirmed leader for months. Robert Wilkie, a former acting secretary who also served as the under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, has been nominated for the top job by President Trump. If confirmed, Mr. Wilkie would take over the second-largest department in the federal government, overseeing a 360,000-person work force.

But he would be without several longtime employees who have recently left the department. The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that several unnamed current and former employees had raised alarms over what appeared to be a purge or reassignment of more than a dozen officials who were not loyal to the Trump administration.

“It’s been 112 days since the V.A. had a Senate-confirmed secretary in place, and many talented people have departed leadership positions within the V.A. over the past four months,” Joe Plenzler, a spokesman for the American Legion, a veterans service organization, said in an email on Wednesday.

“The Veterans Health Administration alone has more than 33,000 job vacancies representing a staffing deficit of almost 10 percent of their overall work force,” he added. “The American Legion has been sounding the alarm over this critical issue.”

Representative Elizabeth Esty, a Democrat from Connecticut who serves on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, raised concerns about the politicization of the department with Mr. O’Rourke during a hearing on Tuesday.

“During your tenure, our committee has been made aware of a significant number of career employees who have served under multiple secretaries,” she said. “These employees have been removed, demoted or reassigned, or they’ve resigned or retired after being made aware of adverse actions coming their way.”

In response, Mr. O’Rourke referred to a few people who had either retired or moved into a different position.

“We’re not on a path to just move things randomly,” he said. “These are all very well-planned and designed moves to better make efficiency and effectiveness at our level.” He added that he had not communicated with Mr. Wilkie regarding these changes.

Officials at the Veterans Affairs Department have been working for years to update outdated computer systems and simplify its approach to private health care. But some say morale has suffered amid turmoil under the current administration; the agency is one of several dealing with vacancies and high staff turnover.

The last Senate-confirmed Veterans Affairs secretary, Dr. David J. Shulkin, had supporters from both parties during the early days of the Trump administration. But his reputation suffered after a scathing agency report in February about money the government had spent on a 10-day business trip he took to Europe with his wife. Mr. Trump fired Dr. Shulkin with a tweet in March and sought to replace him with his White House physician, Dr. Ronny L. Jackson.

That nomination fell through, and Mr. Wilkie took over as acting secretary. When his nomination was announced in May, Mr. Wilkie stepped aside to begin his confirmation process, and Mr. O’Rourke took the helm.

Right now, the department is working to revamp its health care system after President Trump last month signed a legislative overhaul bill to consolidate programs and make it easier for veterans to take their benefits to private doctors for care. Critics of the plan, including Democrats and some large veterans groups and moderate Republicans, say that it would be a boon to private medicine while starving the agency’s budget.

Because of the major changes on the table at the Veterans Affairs Department, the high-level staff changes have been of particular concern.

In a phone interview on Wednesday, Ms. Esty said that in the past month, she had seen “three high-level career retirements of key positions” at the V.A., an unusual number considering the short time span — and the fact that the departures happened under an acting secretary who had not gone through the Senate confirmation process.

“That combination does raise concern,” Ms. Esty said, since the department will be making important decisions on issues including health care privatization, disability appeals reform and an expansion of caregiver support for veterans.

“It is concerning not to have that institutional knowledge there,” she said.

Curt Cashour, the agency’s press secretary, said employees were “absolutely not” being moved for political reasons.

He said the V.A. had “made groundbreaking progress, particularly in the areas of accountability, transparency and efficiency across the department” during the Trump administration.

“This has understandably shaken up V.A.’s Washington bureaucracy,” Mr. Cashour added, “and in many cases, employees who were wedded to the status quo and not on board with this administration’s policies have departed V.A. — some willingly, some against their will as they were about to be fired.”

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