Health care CEO emerges as candidate for VA chief
The CEO of the nation’s second-largest healthcare system has emerged as a candidate in President Trump’s search for a new nominee for secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Anthony Tersigni of Ascension met with senior White House officials last Friday in a wide-ranging discussion that touched on the VA, the Veterans Choice healthcare program, the opioid epidemic, drug prices and behavioral health, according to a source familiar with the meeting.
“They were asking him about running a large system,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He’s known as a very disciplined, tight manager, which is what the VA needs.”
As the White House narrows its search for the next VA chief, the president invited another candidate into the media spotlight Thursday: Acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, who appeared at the White House press podium to accept Mr. Trump’s donation of his first-quarter salary for veterans’ healthcare services.
“I am deeply, deeply grateful to President Trump for providing me the opportunity to serve America’s veterans, and for his generosity in supporting them,” Mr. Wilkie said.
The president tapped Mr. Wilkie, a top Pentagon official, to take over the VA temporarily in March after Mr. Trump ousted Secretary David Shulkin, who angered the White House in a scandal over travel expenses. Mr. Shulkin, the first nonveteran to lead the agency, said later that he was fired because he opposed privatizing some VA healthcare services.
Several others are in the running, including Jeff Miller, a Republican who retired from Congress last year after serving as chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Mr. Miller, now a lobbyist, met with White House officials on May 2.
Mr. Tersigni, who has led the nation’s largest Catholic health system for 13 years, surfaced as a contender for the VA post after the withdrawal of nominee Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson.
Dr. Jackson, who was serving as the president’s physician at the time of his nomination, withdrew amid allegations of personal misconduct.
The VA is the second-largest government department behind the Pentagon, with more than 350,000 employees and a budget of about $186 billion. Another criticism of Dr. Jackson was that he had never led such a large organization.
That wouldn’t be an issue for Mr. Tersigni, 67, who oversees a system with 165,000 employees and about 2,600 health care sites — more locations than the VA. He also has served in the Army National Guard.
Ascension also is the largest provider for the Veterans Choice program, which allows veterans who can’t obtain timely appointments within the VA system or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility to seek private care.
“He would be the anti-Ronny Jackson in the sense that he’s on paper a strong, really qualified candidate who has administrative experience, health-care experience, experience with the VA,” the source said.
Some veterans groups say Mr. Wilkie has been doing a good job in his brief stint at the VA, while others have filed a lawsuit objecting to the president installing Mr. Wilkie over VA Deputy Secretary Tom Bowman.
Mr. Wilkie didn’t address his own status Thursday, but made sure to praise the president for his gesture of donating his paycheck to the VA.
“President Trump understands the critical role of caregivers in meeting the essential needs of America’s veterans,” Mr. Wilkie said. “So we have already earmarked this gift for caregiver support in the form of mental health and peer support programs, financial aid, education, training and research.”
He also urged the Senate to take up Housepassed legislation that would allow more veterans to see doctors outside the VA system.
The bill, the VA MISSION Act, passed the House 347-70 this week.
“This [bill] takes seven community care programs that we’ve been using for the last 15 to 20 years and condenses them into one,” Mr. Wilkie said. “It also makes it much easier for our veterans to obtain care that they need at the moment that they need it, in homes and in facilities closest to where they live. We urge the Senate to take up the House bill and give it to President Trump hopefully before Memorial Day.”