VA privatization fight could erupt in confirmation hearing

VA privatization fight could erupt in confirmation hearing

Long-simmering tensions about privatizing the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) could erupt into a confirmation battle over President TrumpDonald John TrumpNFL freezes policy barring players from protesting during anthem McConnell spokesman on Putin visit: 'There is no invitation from Congress' Petition urges University of Virginia not to hire Marc Short MORE's pick to lead the department. 

Trump’s decision to oust former VA Secretary David ShulkinDavid Jonathon ShulkinTrump loyalists purge VA of longtime staffers who don’t support agenda: report Poll: Majority in some GOP districts say Republicans 'more corrupt' than Dems On paper, Wilkie is the perfect candidate for VA secretary, but his qualifications go further MORE late last month and replace him with White House physician Ronny Jackson stoked speculation that the White House wants to allow veterans more access to private-sector health-care providers.

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In an op-ed published in The New York Times just hours after he was removed, Shulkin blamed his ouster on forces within the administration that he said are pushing hard for privatization

“The advocates within the administration for privatizing VA health services ... saw me as an obstacle to privatization who had to be removed,” Shulkin wrote. 

Dismantling the department’s health-care system “is a terrible idea,” Shulkin wrote, adding that the private sector “is ill-prepared to handle the number and complexity of patients that would come from closing or downsizing VA hospitals and clinics.”

Groups like the Koch brothers-backed Concerned Veterans for America (CVA) are pushing to loosen current restrictions on veterans receiving private-sector care.

Democrats and veterans’ advocates are concerned that the White House is taking those calls for privatizing the VA system seriously, but the VA denied last week that there is any push to privatize its health system.

“There is no effort underway to privatize VA, and to suggest otherwise is completely false and a red herring designed to distract and avoid honest debate on the real issues surrounding veterans’ health care,” the agency said in a statement.

Democrats and veterans’ advocacy groups have been wary of Republican efforts to privatize the VA since before Trump took office.

In a 2016 campaign rally in Virginia Beach, Trump called the VA corrupt and inefficient.

“Veterans should be guaranteed the right to choose their doctor and clinics, whether at a VA facility or at a private medical center,” Trump said. “We must extend this right to all veterans.”

Senate Democrats and veterans groups have not yet drawn any hard lines against Jackson, partly because they said they don’t know what his positions are.

Verna Jones, the executive director of the American Legion, said she would have to sit down and speak with Jackson before passing judgment on his nomination.

“It seems like people are putting the cart before the horse. Jackson hasn’t had a confirmation and none of us know his views,” Jones said. “To be clear, the Legion opposes privatization. How all this ties into Jackson — we owe it to him to wait and see." 

Jackson is an active-duty Navy admiral who has worked as the White House physician for three presidents. Lawmakers have expressed skepticism over whether Jackson, who doesn’t have experience working with the VA or managing a health-care organization, has the qualifications to run the agency.

Senate Democrats on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee said they also don’t know where Jackson stands on privatization. Still, they don’t trust the administration’s motives and are gearing up for a fight. 

Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterOvernight Defense: Trump inviting Putin to DC | Senate to vote Monday on VA pick | Graham open to US-Russia military coordination in Syria Senate to vote Monday on Trump's VA nominee On The Money: Trump rips Fed over rate hikes | Dems fume as consumer agency pick refuses to discuss border policy | Senate panel clears Trump IRS nominee MORE (D-Mont.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, told The Hill he has only had a brief phone call with Jackson since Trump nominated him for the position. 

“There are two areas of concern … one is privatization and the other is management. So that’s what we’re going to focus on,” Tester said. 

“Our job is to strengthen the VA in order to provide high-quality care to our veterans, not dismember it,” Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersSenate to vote Monday on Trump's VA nominee Senate approves resolution warning Trump not to hand over US officials GOP leader blocks resolution backing intelligence community on Russia MORE (I-Vt.) said in a statement. “The Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs should not approve any nominee for secretary who supports the privatization of the VA."

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told The Hill privatization is a “serious concern” that he hopes to address with Jackson.

A spokeswoman for the VA committee said a hearing would be scheduled as soon as Jackson submits his paperwork and finishes a background check. 

Jackson’s nomination could also spotlight legislation that is intended to make it easier for veterans to get care outside the VA system without completely privatizing the system.

The legislation from Tester and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny IsaksonJohn (Johnny) Hardy IsaksonOvernight Defense: Trump inviting Putin to DC | Senate to vote Monday on VA pick | Graham open to US-Russia military coordination in Syria Senate to vote Monday on Trump's VA nominee GOP senators introduce resolution endorsing ICE MORE (R-Ga.) has backing from major veterans groups such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. 

The bill would overhaul VA Choice, a temporary program that allows veterans to seek care outside the VA network — but only in cases where they have to wait more than 30 days for an appointment or drive more than 40 miles to a facility.

It would eliminate the waiting period and distance requirements and allow veterans to seek community care outside the VA if veterans and their providers agree it’s the best method of treatment.

But the Koch-backed CVA has lobbied hard against it, because they think it doesn’t loosen regulations enough.

Opposition has also come from the left. House Democrats blocked the bill from being included in the omnibus funding bill that passed last month because they think it moves the VA too far toward privatization.

A Senate VA committee aide said Isakson has spoken to Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell spokesman on Putin visit: 'There is no invitation from Congress' Overnight Defense: Trump inviting Putin to DC | Senate to vote Monday on VA pick | Graham open to US-Russia military coordination in Syria Senate to vote Monday on Trump's VA nominee MORE (R-Ky.), and hopes to bring the bill to the floor for a stand-alone vote in the next few weeks.