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Substandard care at Manchester VA used by top fed for cover in flap over $122K Wimbledon trip

New Hampshire Union Leader

February 14. 2018 10:26PM
Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin answers a question as U.S. Senators Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen listen last August at the VA Medical Center in Manchester. (Union Leader File/Mark Bolton)

MANCHESTER — Confronted by investigators about a European junket that included free tickets to a Wimbledon final, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said he worked a lot during the trip and cited the emerging media storm over substandard care at the Manchester VA Medical Center.

That’s according to a VA Inspector General, who reports that Shulkin and his wife inappropriately accepted tickets to the ladies final at Wimbledon and ate lunch at the private members dining room at Wimbledon. Investigators also determined that the nine-day, mid-July trip, which cost taxpayers $122,300, involved only 3 1/2 days of meetings, and VA workers arranged numerous sight-seeing activities in Copenhagen and London for the Shulkins.

Shulkin told USA Today on Wednesday that he regretted mistakes he and others made in the travel planning and ethics clearance process.

“In retrospect I wish that I had asked more questions,” the newspaper quoted him as saying. Shulkin said he mailed a check Wednesday to reimburse the government for the cost of his wife’s airfare, $4,312, and is moving to reimburse a British corporate executive for the tennis tickets.

The 87-page report includes Shulkin’s explanation for some of the travel decisions — and the Manchester VA Medical Center plays a role.

The report reads: “Secretary Shulkin stated that he also worked on other VA matters during the trip when there were no official functions, which is corroborated by his handling of matters relating to a media crisis that developed relating to allegations of substandard care at the Manchester VA Medical Center.”

On July 16, the VA removed top officials from the Manchester VA, after the Boston Globe reported substandard conditions that included flies in an operating room, unsanitary surgical conditions and “Third World outcomes” for people with spinal problems.

Inappropriate gifts

Dr. Stewart Levenson, one of the whistle-blowing VA doctors, said he remembers that Shulkin wasn’t among the cadre of VA officials who made early visits to Manchester.

“The story they kept saying is he was at some sort of long-term managed care conference,” said Levenson, who is now retired and seeking the Republican nomination for New Hampshire’s Second Congressional District.

Every year, the doctor said, the VA gives a training module to workers about inappropriate gifts.

“He (Shulkin) should be held to the same standard as every other VA executive,” Levenson said.

But Levenson said he didn’t want to judge whether Shulkin, the only cabinet holdover from the Obama administration, should keep his job.

The Inspector General's report can be viewed below:

Second District Congressman Annie Kuster, said the Inspector General report shows extreme carelessness at best, and willful abuse of taxpayer dollars at worst.

“Secretary Shulkin must immediately address the allegations in this report,” said Kuster, the lead Democrat on the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

Report recommendations

The Inspector General recommended that Shulkin pay for his wife’s airfare for the trip and reimburse a British corporate executive for the Wimbledon tickets. The VA should take action against a chief of staff who made false statements in connection with the travel, audit the travel expenses and enhance training regarding travel planning, the Inspector General said.

According to the report of Inspector General Michael Missal:

• Shulkin’s chief of staff Wright Simpson “falsely represented” to VA ethics officials that Shulkin was receiving an award in Denmark, which would serve as justification for his wife, Dr. Merle Bari, to travel at taxpayer expense. The Department of Justice opted not to prosecute Simpson, Missal wrote.

• Shulkin and his wife improperly accepted the Wimbledon tickets, which were provided by Victoria Gosling, Head of Social Impact at Auden, a for-profit enterprise and a Military Director at Sage Foundation, the philanthropic affiliate of software company Sage Group PLC. Although Gosling told the investigators she was friends with the couple, she could not recall Dr. Bari’s first name.

• Shulkin told his VA program specialist to do non-government work, specifically to work with Bari to arrange personal activities during the trip, most of them sightseeing.

• The Wimbledon tickets prompted an early departure from Copenhagen to London, and with that more fees. “In addition to the $372 in travel agency transaction fees, this change also added $1,733 to lodging costs because VA paid for an early hotel check-in for six rooms, including for Secretary Shulkin and Dr. Bari,” the report reads.

• Shulkin and the VA gave misleading statements to the Washington Post about the trip. One was in November, where Shulkin claimed he paid for the tickets.

“That statement also is not accurate,” the report reads.

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