U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson Credit: Alex Brandon | AP

Ronny Jackson, President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, is privately pledging to Democratic senators that he would oppose efforts to privatize veterans’ health care in his bid to lock down bipartisan support to lead the agency.

But Democrats are far from being won over by the veteran White House physician, who began his gantlet of courtesy meetings on Capitol Hill this week ahead of his April 25 confirmation hearing. They remain unpersuaded that Jackson, a one-star Navy admiral, can successfully fend off a conservative push to outsource more veterans’ care away from VA and are seeking a more firm commitment publicly that he would block such efforts.

“He was convincing enough to me for now, but I want to see him after he talks to the American Legion and Disabled American Vets and Paralyzed Veterans of America and the VFW and all,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who met with Jackson on Tuesday. “He needs to convince them, and then he needs to convince all of us in a public setting that he will stand up to the president and to the Koch brothers when they try to privatize.”

Brown was referring to the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, who have backed a conservative advocacy group, Concerned Veterans for America, which endorses an aggressive expansion of VA’s Choice program. As Jackson prepares for his confirmation battle, he is not only battling the perception that he lacks sufficient management experience, but trying to assuage the concerns of Democratic senators — and some Republicans — who oppose outsourcing more veterans health care to the possible detriment of VA.

Veterans service organizations, meanwhile, say they still know little about Jackson and his qualifications to lead the massive federal agency that is only second in size to the Pentagon. The groups, which have millions of members, said they have yet to be approached by Jackson. The White House says a meeting is likely this week.

Garry Augustine, who heads Disabled American Veterans Washington headquarters, said Jackson has been meeting with high-ranking VA administrators and was reportedly “doing a lot of listening, instead of talking.” The VA job comes with a steep learning curve, he added, noting the agency’s broad mission to care for “every aspect of a vet’s life,” from insurance to education and other benefits.

“I think that I have a lot to offer the veterans,” Jackson said in the office of Sen. Jon Tester, Montana, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “And I enjoyed my service over the last 23 years in [the Department of Defense], and I think this is a great way to continue that service.”

Tester said Jackson committed to him that he would oppose privatizing veterans’ care. Tester urged Jackson to explain that position to Trump, which, Tester said, Jackson had yet to do.

“Look, he seems to be somebody who’s gonna listen to the veterans through the [veterans service organizations] and seems to be somebody who doesn’t want to privatize the VA,” Tester said. “But we’ll see as this process unfolds.”

Added Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, who also met with Jackson on Tuesday: “He said all the right things about not privatizing the VA.”

Trump nominated Jackson for the Cabinet post late last month following the dismissal of David Shulkin, whose tenure as VA secretary came to an unceremonious end amid heated internal battles. Shulkin said he clashed with conservative forces in the administration who favor aggressively expanding veterans’ access to medical services outside the VA system – at taxpayers’ expense. He and a host of veterans groups have said the funding required to do that should be used to improve VA.

Privatization has been described as a red line for Democrats in deciding whether they back Jackson. Modern-day VA secretaries have been unanimously confirmed, but Jackson’s lack of management experience and how he deals with questions surrounding outsourcing care have put that precedent at risk.

A White House spokesman on Tuesday pointed to a statement issued last month by principal deputy press secretary Raj Shah that said: “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.”

In his one-on-one meetings on Capitol Hill, Jackson is stressing that he wants to build capacity within VA to improve health care for veterans, rather than steering care toward private doctors, senators say. But Democrats are skeptical that position can hold, considering the clash over this policy objective is blamed, in part, for Shulkin’s ouster.

Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, met with Jackson on Monday but declined to provide details about their discussion. Several other Senate Republicans have been openly skeptical of Jackson’s qualifications, particularly whether he is equipped to handle the bureaucracy with more than 360,000 employees and an annual budget of $186 billion.

“He doesn’t have the experience that you traditionally think would be required at the VA, but that doesn’t preclude me from reaching the conclusion that he’d still be a good secretary,” said Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, who also sits on the veterans panel. “But I need to be assured that despite that experience, he has other qualifications, capabilities, characteristics that make him the person that should be the secretary.”

Still, Jackson has plenty of Republican defenders. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, who also met with him Tuesday, said he is “not at all” concerned about Jackson’s lack of management experience and plans to introduce him at his confirmation hearing next week.

“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,” Graham said. Asked whether Jackson had that attitude, the South Carolina senator responded: “Oh hell yeah.”

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