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