Courtesy of Tribune News Service

Opinion: Trump VA nominee an affront to veterans

Just this week, the chaos that has been enveloping the Department of Veterans Affairs reached an all new level as Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Dr. Ronny Jackson, faced “accusations that as the White House doctor he oversaw a hostile work environment, improperly dispensed prescription drugs and possibly drank on the job.” Other allegations include giving away Percocet and a drunken car crash. Aside from the constant feeling that this White House really does try its hardest to bring the worst people out of the weeds and into office, Dr. Jackson’s nomination itself is far more concerning, in many ways, than the charges leveled against him. 

The VA, after all, serves over nine million veterans, is the “largest integrated health care system in the United States” and is the second largest branch of the Federal government by employment and fifth by spending. Undoubtedly, a department that large requires a competent and qualified secretary at the helm. However, the Trump administration clearly has no interest in even considering such an approach, preferring to bet on an apparently unvetted unknown and to, yet again, leave veterans by the wayside.

Focusing solely on Dr. Jackson as Trump’s pick to take charge at the VA, we should take a look at his qualifications to run this behemoth of a department. Let’s see, graduated from medical school in 1995, went into active service with the Navy the same year, deployed to Iraq in 2005, then was appointed to be White House physician by Bush in 2006, a role he continued under Obama and now Trump. 

Oh, and that relatively bizarre briefing on the president’s health earlier this year. And that’s it. No, seriously, that’s it. He has no experience managing a healthcare system, let alone even a hospital. In fact, he’s about as qualified to run the department as I am to be a doctor – which is to say that as no sane person would ever trust a 21-year-old opinion writer with a scalpel, no sane person should trust Dr. Jackson with the healthcare of millions of veterans. 

But I guess that’s the problem, isn't it? And, no, I’m not claiming Trump’s insane, I’m just saying he "doesn't give a damn" about those who serve our country. 

Before you bite my head off though, think about it for a minute. Trump wants a man with no prior experience in healthcare management, or management in general, to run an agency vital to the health of millions of veterans. An agency, mind you, that has a slew of problems and has been plagued by scandal after scandal since 2014, including some involving the Columbia VA hospital. The agency is in a period of reform, but this type of deep, structural reform requires qualified leaders, something Dr. Jackson is not. 

Speaking of qualified personnel, it would worth talking about the last two heads of the VA and their efforts to reform it, with particular emphasis on the qualifications they had coming into the job compared to Dr. Jackson. Robert McDonald, who took over the VA after the 2014 scandal, had years of experience as the Chief Executive Officer and President of The Procter & Gamble Company, helping to turn them around during the middle of the last recession. It would be hard to argue that this experience of both running and reforming a major company didn’t play a role in the significant, if slow, progress he made in fixing the VA. 

The next head of the VA, Dr. David Shulkin brought lots of experience into the job. Aside from being a doctor, his experience included work as undersecretary of the VA, “numerous chief executive roles at Morristown Medical Center, and the Atlantic Health System Accountable Care Organization” and CEO of Beth Israel Medical Center, a significant New York City hospital. 

His reforms, particularly his efforts on legislation, were given little time to take effect, but will continue to play a role in improving the VA. In both of these cases, what modest success these men had would not have been possible without their breadth of experience, something Dr. Jackson pales in.

At the end of the day, Dr. Jackson, outside of the allegations against him, is wholly unqualified for the position of VA secretary. More than that, Trump, once again, has shown how he really feels about veterans. If he truly cared about them, he would have nominated someone who actually has the background to do this kind of work. 

But he didn’t. In fact, it doesn’t seem like he thought through this move at all. If anything, “Cadet Bone Spurs” loves to talk the talk about how much he loves veterans, but when it comes to the difficult task of actually helping these people, he couldn’t be bothered to even find someone outside of the White House. Dr. Jackson’s nomination is a disgrace, veterans would be wise to remember this insult.

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