Is Ronny Jackson qualified to be the next VA secretary? Let’s look at his predecessors

The number one question reverberating throughout the veterans’ community right now is whether Admiral Ronny Jackson is qualified to be the next secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

This begs the question, what exactly qualifies one to lead the nation’s second largest government agency?

{mosads}Unfortunately, no one knows yet. The VA has been plagued by controversy since its elevation to a cabinet Department in 1988. Not a single VA secretary has won universal praise from veterans, stakeholders and Congress for the duration of their term. And, more importantly, not a single VA secretary has successfully shown the ability to eliminate the toxic culture that permeates from within the bureaucracy.


To date, there have been nine VA Secretaries that have received Senate confirmation. Of those nine, with the exception of David Shulkin, the only common denominator seems to be military service.  

Five have been appointed by Republican presidents, four have been appointed by Democratic presidents. One was a prior Member of Congress (Edward Derwinski), one previously led a large veterans service organization (Jesse Brown), three were attorneys (Togo D. West, Jr., Anthony Principi, Jim Nicholson), two were medical doctors (Retired Lt. Gen James Peake, Dr. David Shulkin), and one was a CEO with private sector experience (Robert A. McDonald).

More importantly, however, is that seven of the nine ultimately resigned due to scandal or frustration with the agency. The only two to serve out the remainder of their term until a change in the administration — Peake and McDonald — served only two and two and a half years, respectively.

The first Senate-confirmed secretary of VA, Derwinski, was forced to resign in September 1992 when he was criticized by veterans service organizations (VSOs) over efforts to open veterans hospitals to non-veterans. In fact, the VFW let the White House know that it would not endorse President Bush for reelection if Derwsinki remained the head of the VA. As a result, the Bush Administration announced that Derwinski would resign.

The second Senate-confirmed secretary of VA was Jesse Brown, who was the executive director of DAV, one of the nation’s largest VSOs. Despite the enormous influence the VSOs hold over Congress and the VA, Brown, somewhat perplexingly, remains the only VA secretary to come from a service organization background. 

After four years in the job, Brown resigned stating that he had served long enough, as he did not believe that a job as important as VA secretary should be a career position. He also cited health reasons, as he had recently been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Despite some frustrations with the Republican-controlled Congress after 1994, Brown is probably the VA secretary who achieved the highest approval rating during his tenure. Nonetheless, Brown’s legacy was subsequently tarnished, albeit slightly, due to a number of VHA reforms implemented during his term, such as the VISN structure, and a perception by some VSOs, such as Paralyzed Veterans of America, that specialty care was being sacrificed for primary care, that were cited as factors that led to the subsequent 2014 wait-time scandal.

The next three VA Secretaries all resigned due to scandal. Togo West resigned due to criticism for excessive spending on travel at a time when VA faced other budget-shortfalls. Anthony Principi resigned, against his own wishes, after facing criticism for suspending health-care enrollments for some veterans and for approving plans to shut down some aging or underused VA hospitals.

Jim Nicholson was forced to resign after a scathing report on shoddy health care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and a scandal involving the theft of veterans’ personal data, including Social Security numbers, from a VA employee’s computer. Although his successor, James Peake, stayed in the position of VA secretary until the administration changed, he nonetheless faced criticism for “lacking vision to fix the VA” and not doing more for veterans, particularly in the area of mental health, during his tenure as head of the Army’s medical system when the U.S. invaded Iraq and Afghanistan.

More recently, Eric Shinseki resigned after it was revealed that veterans died as a result of inability to access care and the use of secret wait lists by some VA facilities to manipulate the appearance of patient wait times, resulting in intense criticism of the Department from both sides of the aisle.

In the wake of that scandal, President Obama began a trend of appointing a non-partisan VA Secretary; Bob McDonald self-identified as a Republican, was appointed by a Democratic president, and unanimously confirmed by the Senate.

Although McDonald was able to serve in the position until the administration changed, he nonetheless faced criticism and calls for his resignation for comparing VA patient wait-times for medical care to long lines at Disneyland, and getting caught exaggerating the details about his service record and his response to the wait-time scandal. 

Finally, the palace intrigue surrounding the resignation of Secretary Shulkin came to an end this week when President Trump announced, via Twitter, that he was being replaced with Admiral Jackson, after concerns about his travel and his ability to work with other political appointees.

Although those in the veterans community have not been shy about questioning Admiral Jackson’s qualifications, we must acknowledge that, to date, no one has demonstrated what, exactly, the skillset of a successful VA secretary looks like. It appears that being a veteran helps, but six of the seven VA Secretaries who resigned were veterans. Being a medical professional or a politically-savvy public servant would also appear to help, yet the seven VA Secretaries who resigned all had at least one of these qualities.

Although the odds are stacked against any one person fixing the VA, Admiral Jackson deserves a fair chance to be the first, despite his lack of managerial experience — which, although a seemingly helpful qualification to have, did not much help his predecessor, Secretary Shulkin, in the court of public opinion.

Whether we like it or not, the only unquestionable qualification for any cabinet secretary is a close relationship with and nomination by the president. Although some have already criticized Jackson for his close relationship with President Trump, as noted by New York Sen. William L. Macy after the 1828 election, “to the victor belong the spoils.”

Similarly, as more recently noted by Sarah Verardo, executive director of the Independence Fund, “what matters is [that] the president has a secretary with whom he can work effectively.” Regardless of military service, professional background or political party, once a president feels they can no longer work effectively with a cabinet secretary, that secretary’s days are numbered.

The recent dismissal of Shulkin and nomination of Jackson is no exception to this rule. Although those in the veteran’s community, myself included, hope to see a more tangible set of skills for successfully running the VA articulated sooner rather than later, until that time, those that the president nominates deserve our respect and an opportunity to be the first to show us what type of background a successful VA secretary comes from.

Rory E. Riley-Topping has dedicated her career to ensuring accountability within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to care for our nation’s veterans. She is the principal at Riley-Topping Consulting and has served in a legal capacity for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, the National Veterans Legal Services Program, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, and the Department of Veterans Affairs, and can be reached on Twitter @RileyTopping.

Tags David Shulkin David Shulkin; Veterans Affairs Donald Trump Eric Shinseki Military ronny jackson United States Department of Veterans Affairs United States federal executive departments United States Secretary of Veterans Affairs VA Secretary Veterans Health Administration Veterans Health Administration scandal

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