President Donald Trump's decision to dismiss David Shulkin as the secretary of Veterans Affairs stoked speculation that the White House would move swiftly to allow veterans more access to private care outside the VA's health system.
But the agency in a statement on Thursday downplayed that possibility, calling suggestions that the agency charged with caring for the nation's veterans was moving in that direction "completely false."
"There is no effort underway to privatize VA, and to suggest otherwise is completely false and a red herring designed to distract and avoid honest debate on the real issues surrounding Veterans' health care," the VA said in a statement released Thursday. The note cited the agency's increases in funding, employees and medical facilities over the past two decades.
Roughly 30% of veterans already see private doctors outside the VA, but some groups, including the influential Conservative Veterans of America which is backed by the Koch Brothers, have pushed for more private care.
Leading veterans groups, including the Disabled American Veterans and the American Legion, have opposed unlimited choice, suggesting that would dismantle the VA.
The statement comes as veterans groups and lawmakers have expressed concerns that David Shulkin's recent departure as VA secretary would lead to a stronger push for government subsidized private care.
After he left the VA last month, Shulkin told CNN he believes that not only would privatizing the VA would be a bad idea, but that advocates of privatization within the administration who saw him as an obstacle worked to push him out.
Congress is debating how to improve the VA and overhaul the Veterans Choice Program, a 2014 initiative that allows veterans who are unable to get timely care at a VA facility to go to a non-VA provider.
"VA is working with Congress to merge all of VA's community care efforts into a single, streamlined program that's easy for Veterans and VA employees to use so the department can work with Veterans to coordinate their care with private providers when VA can't provide the care in a timely way or when it's in Veterans' best medical interest," the VA's statement said.
Thursday's VA statement quotes Republican Rep. Phil Roe, the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs panel, who said, "If we're trying to privatize, we're not doing a very good job." Roe's spokeswoman Tiffany Haverly said in a tweet that they were "unaware" that the release was going to be sent around.
President Donald Trump also said late last month in Ohio that he made changes at the VA because he wanted veterans to "have real choice" and the ability to "run to a private doctor." White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters told reporters traveling with the President that day that "there is no intent at this point to privatize the VA."
Defense Department official Robert Wilkie is serving as acting secretary while White House physician Ronny Jackson awaits Senate confirmation to be the department's next secretary.