Vets Groups Weigh In on Jackson Nomination Amid Allegations

White House physician Dr. Ronny Jackson speaks to reporters during the daily White House press briefing on Jan. 16. He has been named to replace VA Secretary David Shulkin.(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
White House physician Dr. Ronny Jackson speaks to reporters during the daily White House press briefing on Jan. 16. He has been named to replace VA Secretary David Shulkin.(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Veterans groups have begun to express concerns that the Department of Veterans Affairs will ignore pressing problems because of the leadership vacuum resulting from the nomination of embattled Navy Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson.

The furor over Jackson's qualifications and charges that he drank on the job as head of the White House medical unit also led the ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee to call on him to withdraw his name from consideration to head the VA.

"Not only does Adm. Jackson lack the management experience necessary to successfully lead the 360,000-person, nearly $200 billion federal agency, it is apparent there are also serious questions about his character and job performance," Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minnesota, said Wednesday in a statement.

In her own statement Wednesday, Denise Rohan, national commander of the American Legion, which has more than two million members, said, "Our nation's veterans deserve a strong, competent and experienced Secretary to lead" the VA.

One of the main criticisms of Jackson is that he is ill-prepared to handle the complex problems of a bureaucracy as vast as the VA, which has more than 1,200 facilities serving the health care of more than nine million veterans annually.

As a congressionally chartered organization, the Legion does not advocate for or against individuals, but Rohan pointedly stated that the VA had been "headed in the right direction" under the previous two secretaries, Dr. David Shulkin and Bob McDonald.

Shulkin was fired last month by President Donald Trump, who then named Jackson, his personal physician and head of the White House's small medical unit, to take over the government's second-largest department after the Pentagon.

The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which claims 400,000 members, said a poll of more than 2,200 of its members showed that only 29 percent support Jackson's nomination.

Paul Rieckhoff, founder and chief executive officer of IAVA, called on the Senate to "do its job at this defining time and ensure that any nominee for VA Secretary will live up to this awesome responsibility. Without stability in VA leadership, veterans nationwide are being left behind, our priorities are stalled and our national security is jeopardized."

The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee has put Jackson's confirmation hearing on indefinite hold after allegations surfaced that he drank on the job, improperly handed out medications, and presided over a hostile work environment for the White House medical staff.

A two-page summary of the allegations prepared by the committee's Democratic staff charged that Jackson once provided such a large supply of Percocet, a prescription opioid, to a White House military staff member that the medical unit was "thrown into a panic."

Another allegation claims Jackson got drunk at a Secret Service party for a departing agent and wrecked a government vehicle on his way home.

On Tuesday, Trump said that he himself might not want to move forward with the nomination if he were facing similar allegations, but the White House later appeared to rally behind Jackson.

The admiral told White House reporters Wednesday, "I have not wrecked a car. I can tell you that."

He added, "We're still moving ahead as planned."

At a White House briefing Wednesday, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders pushed back against charges the White House was lax in vetting Jackson.

She said he had been the subject of four background investigations, including one by the FBI, during his tenure at the White House through three administrations and there had never been a concern with his performance.

However, Sanders said none of the recent allegations had turned up in the previous background checks. "We'll certainly take a look at those," she said, while adding that Jackson is still a "highly qualified individual."

The immediate concern at the VA is the future of the Veterans Choice Program, which allows veterans to opt for private health care under certain circumstances. The program is expected to run out of funding in June, and bills to reform the program and extend funding have stalled in Congress.

The lack of leadership at the VA has also had an impact on the Defense Department.

When Shulkin was fired, Robert Willkie, the DoD's undersecretary for personnel and readiness, was sent to the VA as acting secretary until a new leader could be confirmed.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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