WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's pick to be Veterans Affairs secretary is promising not to privatize the agency, a key Democratic senator said Tuesday, taking a stance on a politically charged issue that his predecessor says led to his firing.
The confirmation hearing of Ronny Jackson, Trump's White House doctor and a Navy rear admiral chosen to speed up improvements to the VA, is scheduled for next week. On Tuesday, he met privately with Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, as a part of visits this week to assure lawmakers he could effectively lead the government's second-largest department.
Tester said after the meeting that Jackson had committed to the same stance against privatization as David Shulkin, who pledged before his confirmation as VA secretary last year to continue strong investment in core VA programs and facilities while expanding access to private doctors.
Shulkin was fired last month.
"We talked extensively about why Shulkin got fired with the issues revolving around privatization and capacity building," Tester said. He "seems to be somebody who doesn't want to privatize the VA."
Asked if Jackson had pledged not to privatize VA, Tester said "yes."
"He said basically the same thing Shulkin said--that he wanted to build capacity at the VA," Tester said. According to Tester, Jackson had not yet informed Trump of his views but would be doing so.
Both Tester and Sen. Johnny Isakson, the Republican chairman of the veterans committee who met with Jackson Monday, have declined to endorse Jackson in advance of his confirmation hearing on April 25, saying they need to hear more about his plans to fix VA.
Jackson is "certainly not an expert on VA," Tester said.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a Senate committee member who also met Tuesday with Jackson, said she needed more assurances that Jackson would resist undue White House pressure to aggressively expand private care. Major veterans groups view VA medical centers as best suited to treat complex battlefield injuries, such as traumatic brain injury.
"In our meeting today, I appreciated how strongly Dr. Jackson spoke against privatizing the VA, but I still need to know more about how he will stand up to ideological opponents of VA and remain fully committed to putting the needs of veterans first," Murray said.
The issue of privatizing VA has been a political hot button since the 2016 campaign, when Trump pledged to aggressively expand veterans' access to private doctors outside the government-run VA system at taxpayers' expense via the Veterans Choice program. Trump's comments came in the wake of a 2014 scandal at the Phoenix VA medical center in which some veterans died while waiting months for medical appointments.
After he was fired as VA secretary, Shulkin blamed "political forces" in the Trump administration that he says are bent on privatizing the agency and prioritizing "companies with profits" over the care of veterans.
On Tuesday, the White House reiterated that there were "no discussions" about privatizing VA.
"This administration has taken several unprecedented steps to transform and modernize the VA," White House spokesman Raj Shah said in a statement. "We look forward to continuing our work with Congress to reform and strengthen the VA Choice program to provide our veterans with more choice in their health care."
Several Democratic senators, including Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, have vowed to oppose Jackson's nomination if it leads to greater privatization at the agency.
Before he was confirmed last year as VA secretary, Shulkin, a holdover from the Obama administration, declared in advance that he wouldn't "privatize" VA.
"VA is a unique national resource that is worth saving, and I am committed to doing just that," Shulkin said in February 2017. "There will be far greater accountability, dramatically improved access, responsiveness and expanded care options, but the Department of Veterans Affairs will not be privatized under my watch."