Our D.C. Bureau Blumenthal, VA nominee find common ground

April 20, 2018

WASHINGTON — Sen. Richard Blumenthal said he was “generally encouraged” by responses to key questions on VA privatization offered by President Trump’s nominee for the Department of Veterans Affairs, Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson.

In a meeting Thursday at Blumenthal’s Capitol Hill office, Jackson agreed with the senator’s call for greater investments in filling the 30,000 or so medical vacancies within the Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as maintenance and renovation to VA facilities and hospitals like the one in West Haven.

“I am somewhat assured he shares my view that privatization would betray our trust and obligation to our veterans,” said Blumenthal, D-Conn. The senator is a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, which holds a confirmation hearing next week on Jackson, who serves as Trump’s White House physician.

Like most Democrats and many Republicans on Capitol Hill, Blumenthal is a sworn enemy of efforts to outsource VA medical services to non-VA doctors and hospitals.

But the privatization movement is popular among conservatives including the billionaire Koch brothers, who have underwritten an organization — Concerned Veterans for America — that advocates expanded privatization as a solution to cases of VA ineptitude, including the scandal that tarred VA’s Phoenix hospital in 2014.

“When a system isn’t working well, it’s not just wasting taxpayer money; it’s hurting our warfighters,” said Dan Caldwell, CVA executive director, in the Washington Post.

CVA’s argument has found a sympathetic ear inside the Trump administration, even from the president himself. Former VA Secretary David Shulkin’s opposition to expanded privatization was among the many factors leading to his dismissal.

VA allows a measure of privatization in the form of a program called VA Choice, which permits veterans to get care from private doctors at government expense if they live over 40 miles from a VA facility, or if they suffer from a malady the VA cannot treat.

The issues are crucial in Connecticut, which is home to about 192,000 veterans. The VA in Connecticut completes about 40,000 appointments a month with the West Haven facility — the state’s only full-service VA hospital — accounting for about half of those.

The VA also operates a medical center in Newington, and seven primary-care clinics in locations including Danbury and Stamford.

The bipartisan budget deal reached in February included $4 billion for VA facility repair and renovation, some of which Blumenthal wants to channel to needed work in Newington and West Haven.

“There’s a hidden agenda here on other side, essentially to starve the VA and say ‘look, they’re failing our vets, we need to privatize,’’’ said Blumenthal. “I was generally encouraged (by Jackson) but I want to hear what he says on the record, specifically in response to questions that test his commitment.”

For Jackson, 50, a Texas native and 23-year Navy veteran who served in combat hospitals in Iraq, the confirmation hearing scheduled for April 25 is crucial. Like presidential nominees in other arenas, he will have to walk a tightrope between saying what the White House wants to hear and what senators who hold the keys to confirmation want to hear.

Jackson’s lack of any administrative experience may prove to be a stumbling block to leading a sprawling $185 billion agency with 375,000 employees and a long history of mismanagement.

Apart from the privatization issue, Blumenthal praised Jackson as an “extraordinarily able and distinguished doctor, and an excellent military officer with an exemplary record.”

His lack of managerial experience “is not a deal breaker,” Blumenthal said. “But it is a factor.”