Veterans groups and Congress uneasy about new VA nominee

Matt Saintsing
March 29, 2018 - 11:13 am

(Photo by Xinhua/Sipa USA)

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President Donald Trump’s decision to oust Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and nominate Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, the White House physician, as the next head of the VA has drawn mixed reactions.

However, among the lawmakers and veterans groups reactions there was a common thread: Just who is Ronny Jackson, and does he have the policy experience to head the second largest government agency?

Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee said he was in the process of "reaching out to Dr. Jackson," and aims to build "a strong relationship" with him.

Roe also said he is sad to see Shulkin go. 

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee said "he is "looking forward to meeting Admiral Jackson and learning more about him." 

Isakson's Democrat counterpart on the committee, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said Shulkin had made serious strides in "improving the VA’s delivery of health care and benefits to our veterans," adding VA needs a "a strong leader at the top," and he looks forward to "seeing if (Jackson) is up for the job." 

Jackson will need to be confirmed by the Senate and is required to answer questions at a confirmation hearing with the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Before that, Robert Wilkie, the current Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, will serve as the acting VA secretary.

Marine Corps veteran, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) had previously called for Shulkin to be fired and celebrated the news Wednesday evening, saying Shulkin “did nothing to clean up the culture of bureaucratic incompetence that he has defined the leadership at the VA.”

Denise Rohan, national commander of the American Legion—the nation’s largest veterans organization—struck a friendlier tone wishing Shulkin well, and said he “acted in the best interests of America’s veterans and was making meaningful, positive changes at the VA.”

AMVETS said they are “deeply concerned” for veterans amid Trump’s decision to fire Shulkin. “Veterans’ lives depend on this decision, and the Trump administration needs to substantiate that this active-duty Navy officer is qualified to run a $200 billion bureaucracy,” said AMVETS director Joe Chenelly.

Paralyzed Veterans of America says, "Paralyzed Veterans of America is deeply disappointed by the departure of Dr. David Shulkin as Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Given the vacuum that already exists in the senior leadership positions at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), this decision will only exacerbate the challenges VA faces as it works to implement meaningful reforms. We look forward to understanding more about the qualifications of Admiral Ronny L. Jackson, MD to helm the VA during this critical time. The VA has a broad mission and the Secretary must be someone who is eminently qualified to lead the nation's second largest cabinet agency. In particular, reforming VA's health care system to better serve the needs of veterans and their families is of great importance. We encourage the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs to take these concerns very seriously as it considers Admiral Jackson's nomination. We thank Dr. Shulkin for his leadership to advance the VA's mission. Under his leadership at VA we have seen reform in VA health care, sorely needed improvements in the benefits and claims appeals process, and real accountability of the workforce. Veterans owe Dr. Shulkin a debt of gratitude for his service to this country while leading the VA."

Jackson practiced emergency medicine in Iraq and became the White House physician in 2006. There’s no doubt he is experienced in military medicine, but it’s unclear if he has expertise to manage a government monstrosity with over 350,000 employees.