The Trump administration faces renewed scrutiny in the new year over a trio of the president’s resort-club acquaintances who allegedly tried to influence the Department of Veterans Affairs’ overhaul of electronic health records for more than 9 million veterans.
The Government Accountability Office is expected to complete a review of the actions of the so-called “Mar-a-Lago council” sometime next spring at the request of Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Brian Schatz of Hawaii, who warned of the potential for “corruption and cronyism” to influence VA policy decisions.
Democrats who will take over the majority on the House Veterans Affairs and the House Oversight committees next month also have sought documents related to the group’s involvement with the VA, requests that were generally rebuffed when they were in the minority. The Oversight Committee is expected to pursue the matter under incoming Chairman Elijah Cummings, Maryland Democrat who urged majority Republicans unsuccessfully in September to subpoena VA records pertaining to the Mar-a-Lago group.
And the VA faces a lawsuit filed by a liberal veterans’ group alleging that the “clandestine cabal” from Mar-a-Lago advised the VA on the $10 billion transformation of its digital-records system and “drove” development of a mobile app for veterans’ health care. The app was to be adapted from a proprietary platform owned by West Palm Beach physician Bruce Moskowitz, one of the president’s friends.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has told lawmakers that he will “absolutely” resist any inappropriate interference by Dr. Moskowitz and the president’s other friends, Marvel Entertainment Chairman Ike Perlmutter and lawyer Marc Sherman.
“Although his predecessors may have done things differently, Secretary Wilkie has been clear about how he does business,” VA spokesman Curt Cashour said in a statement. “No one from outside the administration dictates VA policies or decisions — that’s up to Secretary Wilkie and President Trump. Period.”
But Democrats aren’t finished asking questions about how and why the three members of Mar-a-Lago with no expertise in health-information technology or government contracting inserted themselves into discussions about the VA’s electronic records project and high-level personnel matters.
Emails obtained by ProPublica show that the three men reviewed a confidential draft of the $10 billion government contract last March, along with more than 40 outside experts such as hospital executives. The emails detailed Dr. Moskowitz’s effort to get the VA and Apple to adapt his app.
After the ProPublica investigation uncovered the trio’s involvement in VA policy discussions, Mr. Wilkie said he has cut off contact with them after an initial meeting at the president’s private club last April.
“I met with them once for an hour when I was at Palm Beach the first week I was acting [secretary],” Mr. Wilkie told a Senate panel in September. “I’ve had no connection with them since then.”
He also said he has a “completely new leadership team in place” at the VA, including a new chief of staff to replace Peter O’Rourke, who had worked closely with the Mar-a-Lago trio.
Mr. Wilkie said he “went against what they were advocating” by awarding a non-competitive $10 billion contract last May to Missouri-based Cerner Corp. to overhaul the agency’s medical records and make them compatible with the Defense Department’s records system. Former VA Secretary David Shulkin also wanted to transition the VA to Cerner in 2017 but encountered bureaucratic roadblocks.
The president fired Mr. Shulkin last spring after he fell out of favor with the Mar-a-Lago group, reportedly over resisting their advice to more rapidly privatize portions of the VA’s health care system.
A White House spokeswoman has said the three Mar-a-Lago members have “no direct influence” over VA policy.
And the men told ProPublica in a statement earlier this year, “At all times, we offered our help and advice on a voluntary basis, seeking nothing at all in return.”
The administration’s opponents say they plan to keep digging into the matter.
“The more we see, the more that stinks with this Mar-a-Lago VA Council,” said Will Fischer, an Iraq War veteran and director of government relations for the liberal group VoteVets. “Operating with absolutely no oversight, or any congressionally sanctioned role, this clandestine cabal was providing material guidance that seems to have affected VA decision-making. To merely say veterans deserve better than having our VA managed between the back nine and the back patio of Donald Trump’s country club would be a gross understatement.”
In an op-ed in late December in USA Today, Mr. Fischer and Democracy Forward Executive Director Anne Harkavy called on Mr. Wilkie “to provide that full and accurate accounting of the level of influence the Mar-a-Lago trio has held over the VA.”
“It’s unconscionable that the Trump administration continues to stonewall the public on how private interests are affecting veterans’ access to critical health care,” they wrote.
In an unrelated matter, lawmakers grilled Mr. Wilkie just before the Christmas holiday break over a government watchdog’s finding that department officials failed to spend millions in outreach and public awareness funds for veterans suicide prevention last fiscal year. Only about only $57,000 — less than 1 percent of the budget — was spent.
Incoming House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, California Democrat, called it a “shameful” mistake.
Mr. Wilkie promised the VA will do a better job on the issue; about 20 veterans per day kill themselves.
“I’ll probably ask for more or allocate more [to prevention efforts],” Mr. Wilkie told lawmakers. “This is a national tragedy.”
The department’s top suicide prevention job was vacant from July 2017 to April 2018.
“The problem we had before is that there was no plan,” Mr. Wilkie told reporters. “My commitment was to create a robust office for suicide prevention, which is what we are doing now.”
Mr. Wilkie told lawmakers optimistically that the department’s “turmoil” of earlier this year, including Mr. Shulkin’s firing and the withdrawal of replacement nominee Adm. Ronny Jackson, “is in the rearview mirror.”
“There are two departments of the federal government that must be especially careful to rise above partisan politics: the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Mr. Wilkie said.