President Donald Trump’s nominee for Department of Veterans Affairs secretary told a leading senator Tuesday that he does not want to privatize the agency.
Following his first meeting with Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, the White House physician and VA secretary nominee, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said Jackson’s views on private-sector medical care fell in line with the views of former VA Secretary David Shulkin.
Shulkin blamed the debate over private-sector care for his ouster from the agency.
“We talked extensively about that, and we talked extensively about why Shulkin got fired,” Tester said. “[Jackson] said basically the same thing Shulkin said, that he wanted to build capacity in the VA and he’s not here to privatize it.”
Jackson hasn’t shared his views with Trump, Tester said.
“He did say he had a firm commitment against privatization,” Tester told reporters. “I asked him to explain that position to the president and get back to me. He needs to talk to the president about it before we confirm him.”
Jackson is on Capitol Hill this week meeting with lawmakers for the first time since being named to replace Shulkin. The White House officially nominated Jackson on Monday. The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee is planning Jackson’s confirmation hearing for April 25.
His meeting with Tester, the ranking Democrat on the committee, lasted about 30 minutes. Jackson wore his Navy uniform and was accompanied by White House staff.
Tester said he hadn’t made up his mind on the nominee, citing concerns about his lack of management experience and familiarity with the inner workings of the massive bureaucracy.
Jackson, 50, has been working as the White House physician since 2006. In response to Tester’s questions about his management experience, Jackson described his current duties leading a team of medical providers, Tester said.
Part of Jackson’s training as a physician was in the VA health care system, Tester said, but he “certainly is not an expert on the VA.”
“The VA, as you know, is the second-biggest agency in the federal government,” Tester added. “It’s a big agency, and it takes a special person to be able to handle that job, and I haven’t made up my opinion on Admiral Jackson yet in that regard.”
Tester isn’t the first to express worry about Jackson’s management experience. Concerns have been raised in the past few weeks about Jackson’s qualifications to lead the VA, which has more than 350,000 employees, utilizes a nearly $200 billion budget and operates a vast health care system that serves more than 9 million veterans nationwide.
Jackson responded to those concerns during an interview last week with his hometown newspaper, the Lubbock Advance-Journal in Texas.
“You know, I’m not just an officer in the Navy, I’m an emergency medicine physician in the military. I’ve been confronted on a day-to-day basis with life and death decisions,” he told the newspaper. “I think I’ve got what it takes.”
Tester said Jackson expressed confidence Tuesday in his own ability to lead the agency.
“I think he feels he’s qualified to run the VA,” Tester said.
Besides Jackson’s lack of management experience, Tester has concerns about who Jackson might allow to influence him on the issue of private-sector care.
In numerous interviews after his dismissal, Shulkin claimed White House insiders sought to privatize the agency’s health care system and viewed him as an obstacle to privatization.
For more than a year, Congress, the VA, the White House and large veterans organizations have been negotiating about changes to how the VA uses private-sector care. Many lawmakers and veterans organizations agree the system needs to be fixed but believe an aggressive expansion of veterans’ health care into the private sector would erode VA resources and eventually dismantle the agency.
“How he handles the influences that are out there, who he listens to as he moves forward, is going to be incredibly important,” Tester said.
Jackson met Monday with Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., the chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. In a statement following the meeting, Isakson said he looked forward to the confirmation hearing and learning more about Jackson’s plans for the agency.
The VA “needs a leader who is able to work with Congress to implement legislative solutions and oversee a large and multifaceted department,” Isakson said.
Ahead of Jackson’s confirmation hearing, Democrats on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee have been asking people to submit any questions for Jackson over Twitter using the hashtag #PagingDrJackson.
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