VA Choice re­forms face tight time­line as hunt be­gins for new VA sec­re­tary

Modern Healthcare - - Politics - By Susannah Luthi

Amid the noise over

Dr. Ronny Jack­son with­draw­ing from con­sid­er­a­tion to be sec­re­tary of Veter­ans Af­fairs, law­mak­ers and stake­hold­ers vow that long-stalled VA Choice re­forms will move for­ward as planned, even as the time­line grows shorter and the ef­fort to find a nom­i­nee be­gins again.

The House VA Com­mit­tee last week was sup­posed to de­bate the bi­par­ti­san agree­ment reached in March, but that has been post­poned un­til early May, and not all parts of the deal are set in stone, ac­cord­ing to aides close to the talks.

The leg­is­la­tion has not yet been in­tro­duced, but aides say it cur­rently tracks closely with the draft ob­tained by Mod­ern Health­care last month, which in­cludes a White House-backed pro­vi­sion from Sen. Jerry Mo­ran (R-Kan.) that would let veter­ans opt for pri­vate care if their VA med­i­cal fa­cil­ity failed to meet cer­tain ac­cess stan­dards.

The White House is pres­sur­ing law­mak­ers to pass the pack­age be­fore fund­ing for the cur­rent Choice pro­gram ex­pires in June. Law­mak­ers and the ad­min­is­tra­tion want it done by the end of May. But ac­cord­ing to a GOP Se­nate aide, the Se­nate VA Com­mit­tee has not worked with the White House pol­icy team on the leg­is­la­tion since the deal was struck.

The leg­isla­tive push ar­rives as Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump ex­pressed his dis­sat­is­fac­tion with how the Se­nate han­dled the Jack­son al­le­ga­tions. Trump, shortly af­ter Jack­son bowed out of

the nom­i­na­tion early April 26, called in to a TV news show to de­fend his pick and blast Se­nate VA Com­mit­tee rank­ing Demo­crat Jon Tester of Mon­tana for his role in de­rail­ing the nom­i­na­tion. A day ear­lier Tester had re­leased a scathing sum­mary of in­ter­views with 23 cur­rent and for­mer Jack­son col­leagues in the White House Med­i­cal Unit.

Trump de­fended Jack­son’s char­ac­ter and said there should be a “big price to pay” for Tester over his han­dling of the al­le­ga­tions. “I think this is go­ing to cause him a lot of prob­lems in his state,” Trump said, ref­er­enc­ing the up­com­ing midterm elec­tion.

Se­nate VA Com­mit­tee Chair­man Johnny Isak­son (R-Ga.) did not com­ment on Tester’s han­dling of the process, but said he re­spected Jack­son and is now fo­cused on find­ing a good new nom­i­nee. He dis­missed the idea that the tur­moil will fur­ther stymie the Choice leg­is­la­tion.

All eyes are now on who the next nom­i­nee will be. “This is a nom­i­na­tion that needs to hap­pen; it needs some­one cred­i­ble who can step in im­me­di­ately, who doesn’t need to go through a long process, and it needs to hap­pen soon be­cause this is af­fect­ing men and women on the ground,” said Sen. Patty Mur­ray (D-Wash.), who sits on the VA Com­mit­tee.

Veter­ans ser­vice or­ga­ni­za­tions have also been vo­cal about the next can­di­date. AMVETS Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Joe Chenelly is call­ing for a na­tion­wide search. “It’s go­ing to take the pres­i­dent’s full ef­fort to find the right per­son, but veter­ans are worth that ef­fort, and frankly, they’ve al­ways de­served noth­ing less,” Chenelly said.

Dan Cald­well, CEO of the con­ser­va­tive Con­cerned Veter­ans for Amer­ica, which worked closely with the White House and Mo­ran on the Choice bill’s com­mu­nity care pro­vi­sions, also called for a high level of scrutiny from the ad­min­is­tra­tion. “The White House should take its time to care­fully select and vet a new nom­i­nee,” Cald­well said. “The VA cur­rently has a com­pe­tent act­ing sec­re­tary in Robert Wilkie who can man­age the VA … while the White House se­lects a new VA sec­re­tary nom­i­nee and the Se­nate goes through the con­fir­ma­tion process.”

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