VA secretary: Brave soldiers don't deserve to be politicized

This is a rush transcript from "Your World," October 20, 2017. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


REP. FREDERICA WILSON, D-FLORIDA: You mean to tell me that I have become so important that the White House is following me and my words? This is amazing. It's amazing. That is absolutely phenomenal. I have to tell my kids that I'm a rock star now.


NEIL CAVUTO, "YOUR WORLD" HOST: All right. I don't know about a rock star, but the feud between that Florida Democratic congresswoman, Frederica Wilson, and the White House, it does continue.

It's something that I did raise with VA Secretary David Shulkin. Take a look.


DAVID SHULKIN, U.S. SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS: I'm focused on veterans' issues. And I don't have a lot of time for the politics.

But I can tell you this. I spend time with the president. And this is a president who is deeply concerned about those that we put in harm's way, cares a lot about veterans' issues.

And I know his heart is to try to provide comfort to those who have had absolutely the worst thing happen, which is to have lost a loved one, a spouse or a child.

And these four brave soldiers, American heroes, really don't deserve to be politicized in this environment.

CAVUTO: She referred to herself and the attention it's gotten, sir, as becoming a rock star. I have become a rock star now.

What did you think of that?

SHULKIN: Well, look, this is not about her. This is not about the individual people that are that we're talking about.

This is about people, less than 1 percent of our country, the bravest, the best that we have that who have gone off and now lost their lives defending our country. And the families are grieving.

And my focus is on those that have given the ultimate sacrifice and those that continue to defend our country. And those who want to make themselves rock stars, I just really don't have to -- I can't pay attention to that right now.

CAVUTO: Switching to what you're trying to do right now at the VA, sir, and, of course, the thousand people who have lost their jobs as you have been cracking down on abuse or laziness or ineptitude and all that stuff, still, Senator John McCain has been among those urging still more oversight of the VA, its finances, et cetera.

What do you think of that?

SHULKIN: Well, the VA has a lot of issues, and we're hard at work at fixing them.

But we're not a perfect organization. And we actually look forward to working with Congress, not only in finding the solutions, but in oversight, because we want to be addressing these problems and addressing them aggressively.

Senator John McCain has been a champion of the Choice Program. We just put out a new way of revamping the Choice Program that we think is going to save taxpayers money, give veterans more choice, and take the red tape out of the system.

And we look forward to working with Senator McCain and all of Congress in a bipartisan way to get this done.

CAVUTO: Still, a lot of people look at the continued staff shortages, beyond just those that you terminated, sir, and they say that -- especially some of the various union groups representing these workers -- is that this is on you.

I believe it was David Cox, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, who said -- and I quote -- "Congress has given the secretary the money to fill these positions, and he's not filling these positions."

What do you say?

SHULKIN: Well, I just don't think that David Cox has his facts straight.

We're absolutely filling all of our positions. We desperately want to get the most talented health care professionals to come and serve at VA. There's no hiring freezes in the field. We have some hiring freezes in the corporate offices here in Washington because we want to decrease the amount of administrative oversight and put more money into hiring the right people to take care of our veterans.

And so we would rather have the union helping us find those individuals, rather than going out and spending their time picketing and doing activities that frankly are not helping very much.

CAVUTO: I think even your critics would commend you for the efforts to turn around what has been almost an impossible task over at the VA, so much so that you're presumably the top candidate to head the Health and Human Services Administration, Tom Price recently resigning.

Are you interested in that job? If it were offered, would you take it?

SHULKIN: I came to Washington to help fix the situation with our veterans. It's something I'm passionate about. I'm committed to VA. I want to see this through. And we have a lot of work to do at VA, and that's where 100 percent of my focus is going to remain.

CAVUTO: But Health and Human Services needs a lot of help, too, right?

SHULKIN: Well, listen, health care is important for Americans. I have spent my career doing that. But I like to finish jobs that I start.

CAVUTO: All right.

There's jobs that have to be done in both counts, to your point. But one of the things that came up with HHS, as you know, is A, you're a doctor, B, the president is looking at revamping ObamaCare, the Affordable Care Act. He apparently nixed what had been a possible solution bandied about by a Republican senator and Democratic senator to keep funding these insurance companies that provide benefits to those who can't afford them.

Just from the position of a doctor, and not whether you would ever take that job, how do you feel about that?

SHULKIN: Well, I think the number one issue is access.

Americans, particularly those that are of need of the greatest help, need access to health care. And there's no reason why we can't make affordable health care available for all Americans.

I think that's what we're trying to do. I'm convinced that we need to do this on a bipartisan basis. We need to involve the industry itself in the solutions. And I think the president is driving us towards finding a solution that works for all Americans.

CAVUTO: As you know, sir, Tom Price got in a lot of trouble over taxpayer- financed trips and charter flights and the rest.

Sure enough, when your name was bandied for this, they dug up a taxpayer- funded trip you took with your wife took to Denmark and England, presumably to discuss veterans' health issues, which you did. But, again, they said you took a lot of personal travels while there.

You just want to settle it once and for all? What happened? Is it a big deal? Explain.

SHULKIN: Well, first of all, I did nothing at all wrong. And I look forward to getting a full investigation to let everybody understand that.

We met with five of our allies, the people who fight alongside us in our wars on veterans' issues. There was no private jets. We flew commercial. We did work first and on weekends and after-hours, we enjoyed some of the sights on our money, not the taxpayer money.

This is consistent with every single rule and everything that was done appropriately. And so I want to get back to focusing on what matters to this country, what matters to American veterans, and the distractions and politics in Washington have no interests to me.

I'm a physician. I came here to fix issues. And Washington can do whatever games it does. I'm staying focused on fixing issues for veterans.

CAVUTO: Yes, I looked into that trip as well, sir. And I did see that you did attend all of these various veterans' health issues events.

So, I guess it says something of the toxic nature of Washington. And here you are someone who was approved for your position 100-0. I mean, that's pretty tough to do.

But it is indicative of where we stand right now in Washington. So have you had your fill of it? In other words, given what you deal with and whether people like you or dislike you, that it's this toxic and that this would be this the kind of thing that would come up should you entertain other possibilities, other Cabinet positions?

SHULKIN: Yes, look, there's no question it shouldn't be this hard to come and to serve your country, to leave the private sector.

But what keeps me going every day is the work that we're doing to fix the issues in this country. I do believe we're making progress.

And there's no doubt you need a thick skin to work in Washington. And you have to stay focused on the issues, and you have to believe in what you're doing.

And I do believe that we're working to make a difference. And I'm committed to seeing this through, so that we can have a sustainable system who -- for those who raise their hand to defend our country for generations to come.

CAVUTO: So, finally, on that point, sir, that means that you think there's a valid role for VA hospitals, for Department of Veteran Affairs, and that just giving them a pass or card to go to a private facility, that doesn't cut it. They need the special care that a VA hospital facility can provide, that that's unique to their experiences.

SHULKIN: You know, Neil, I came into Washington from the private sector with an open mind on this issue.

And I'm thoroughly convinced that the VA system is essential for the national security of this country, that when you raise your hand to go off and defend the country, you have to know that there are people and organizations there when you come back that are there for you and committed to you for the rest of your life if you need them.

And so I believe this system, which has had lots of problems, sometimes spanning back decades, needs to be fixed and it needs to be here for generations to come.


CAVUTO: All right, VA Secretary David Shulkin.


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