The physician who gave President Donald J. Trump a squeaky clean bill of health could soon lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, even though he lacks the experience to manage an enormous agency that has long been steeped in controversy.
Trump’s nomination of Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson, the White House physician since President George W. Bush’s administration, has raised eyebrows on Capitol Hill and triggered concerns among veterans service organizations.
There is nothing in Dr. Jackson’s background to suggest he could lead a government agency with a $200 billion budget and a staff of 370,000 spread across 3,000 facilities.
While providing health care to veterans is the main focus of the VA – the Veterans Health Administration operates the largest hospital network in the U.S. – there are other important services veterans depend on.
Disability benefits, education subsidies and cemeteries are just a few of the numerous programs available to the men and women who served this country.
The VA is second only to the Department of Homeland Security in terms of its budget and its importance.
That is why Trump’s nomination of Dr. Jackson is so troubling. It seems that he is being rewarded for saying the president is in “excellent health” and “fit for duty.”
Jackson claimed Trump had “incredible genes” that kept him healthy despite his well-documented affinity for fast food and abhorrence of exercise.
“It’s called genetics. I don’t know,” the doctor said at one point. “Some people have just great genes. I told the president that if he had a healthier diet over the last 20 years, he might live to be 200 years old. I just don’t know.”
He added, “It’s just the way God made him.”
It is no secret that the billionaire real- estate developer from New York City expects to be showered with high praise from those around him and does not like to be second-guessed.
Indeed, his nomination of Jackson to be secretary of the Department of Veteran Affairs came in the wake of his firing of David Shulkin, who was cool to the idea of privatizing some of the health-care services.
Shulkin, who is not a veteran but had served at VA as head of the Veterans Health Administration, was popular with veterans service organizations and lawmakers.
In an opinion piece published in the New York Times after his firing, Shulkin sought to set the record straight by saying he had been fired and had not resigned, as the White House claimed.
“I have been falsely accused of things by people who wanted me out of the way,” the former secretary of the VA wrote. “But despite these politically based attacks on me and my family’s character, I am proud of my record and know that I acted with utmost integrity. Unfortunately, none of that mattered.”
As for the campaign by some Trump insiders to privatize the delivery of health care, Shulkin wrote:
“They saw me as an obstacle to privatization who had to be removed. This is because I am convinced that privatization is a political issue aimed at rewarding select people and companies with profits, even if it undermines care for veterans.”
That goes to the heart of the matter and must be the focus of confirmation hearings in Congress.
The website Government Executive Management quoted Joe Chenelly, executive director of AMVETS, as saying, “I am deeply concerned about the nominee. 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, the second largest agency in government.”
AMVETS also has this question that members of Congress should pursue when they meet with Jackson:
“What qualifications does the president’s nominee have to address claims, appeals, benefits and cemetery affairs?”
Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign and since he took office in January 2017, Trump has claimed to be the greatest advocate for the military and veterans this country has ever had.
Yet, the Republican president did not hesitate to get rid of an individual who enjoyed wide support among veterans. Indeed, Shulkin’s popularity stems from the fact that he has put in place programs and initiatives that address past problems with the delivery of services, especially health care.
Given the conflicting reports regarding the VA secretary’s departure, we believe President Trump should tell the American people if he wants health-care services to be privatized.