President Donald Trump's nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs is meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill and has told several key Democratic senators that he is committed not to privatize veterans' health care.
The meetings, detailed in interviews Tuesday, provide the first insights into Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson's policy views ahead of an expected confirmation hearing next week, and place the White House physician squarely in the middle of a heated debate over how to best care for the United States' 20 million veterans.
"He assured me in tough questions back and forth that he will oppose privatization, that he will tell the President he's opposed to privatization," Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown told CNN after meeting with Jackson.
President Donald Trump's dismissal of David Shulkin, and announcement that Jackson, the White House physician, was his pick to serve as the head of the VA caused alarm among Democrats on Capitol Hill and major veterans groups like the Disabled American Veterans and American Legion. Those groups have worried that the change in leadership at VA would lead to a stark change in veterans' health care that they have long opposed, but that has the support of the advocacy group Concerned Veterans for America, which is funded by the billionaire conservative Koch brothers.
Shulkin has said that he believes he was fired because he was seen as an obstacle to expanding private care for the nation's veterans.
"He said all the right things, seems to have the same position on privatization as Shulkin had," Montana Sen. Jon Tester, the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans Committee, said of his meeting with Jackson on Tuesday. "I asked him if the President knew that and he said he hadn't had a conversation about privatization with the President."
"I said, 'You need to do that and then come back and tell me what the President says about you,'" Tester added.
A White House spokesman on Tuesday reiterated that the administration has had "no discussions" about privatizing care for veterans.
"President Trump is committed to ensuring our nation's veterans receive the care they rightfully deserve. This administration has taken several unprecedented steps to transform and modernize the VA, and there are no discussions about privatizing it," deputy press secretary Raj Shah said. "We look forward to continuing our work with Congress to reform and strengthen the VA Choice program to provide our veterans with more choice in their healthcare."
But as a candidate, Trump campaigned on the idea that he would fix the VA by allowing veterans more access to private doctors and, as recently as last month, he said veterans should be allowed to "run to a private doctor" if they wanted, a statement that revived concerns that drastically expanding private care was the end goal.
Brown said that while there is pressure in the White House to privatize care for the nation's veterans, Jackson "sounds like he'll push back."
"I know that the President wants to privatize. I know the Koch brothers and the funders of the Republican Party want to privatize. I know that a whole lot of Republican senators in leadership want to privatize, I'm counting on him to stand up," Brown said.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers have also expressed concerns about whether Jackson has the right management and leadership experience to manage the sprawling, troubled agency.
"Ultimately, I need to reach the conclusion that I have confidence in this person to lead a huge organization that desperately needs strong leadership," Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran said. "I've said before one would think experience in other big operations would be important. We've had that with Sec. McDonald who came from Proctor and Gamble."
Jackson, whom Moran has yet to meet with, "doesn't have the experience that you traditionally would think would be required at the VA, but that doesn't preclude me from reaching the conclusion that he could be a good secretary," he added.
Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the second-most senior Democrat on the Veterans committee, met with Jackson on Tuesday and said that he said "all the right things about not privatizing the VA," but added that she still has questions about his "management and leadership of a large organization.
"Look, he has some issues with management, he hasn't really overseen a large group, and so, we'll sort through that," Tester said.
But South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican who will introduce Jackson at his confirmation hearing next week, said that the VA's problems aren't about management.
"The VA is not a management problem, it's an attitude problem. You don't need a manager to run an organization. You need somebody with the right attitude that the VA is going to better serve our veterans," said Graham, who added that he met with the "hard charging fella" on Tuesday. "You need a military sort of going to get this done attitude."