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Trump Pick For VA Secretary May Get Additional Scrutiny

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Trump has nominated White House physician Ronny Jackson to replace David Shulkin as the secretary of Veterans Affairs. But Doctor Jackson will still need to be confirmed by the Senate. One man who will help decide whether Jackson gets the job is Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal. He's on the Senate committee for veterans affairs (ph), and he was also a reservist in the Marines in the 1970s. Good morning, Senator.

RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: Good morning to you. Thank you for having me.

KING: We're glad to have you. Before we move on to Ronny Jackson, I want to quickly get your take on the firing of Dr. Shulkin. What's your understanding of why he was let go?

BLUMENTHAL: I take the president at his word - that he was dissatisfied with his performance. But he contributed a lot to the VA at very difficult times. And I think that Dr. Jackson is going to face a buzz saw of skepticism and scrutiny about his management expertise and ability to face exactly the challenges that Dr. Shulkin eventually found unsurmountable (ph).

KING: We'll talk about that buzz saw in a second. But we did talk to Dr. Shulkin on MORNING EDITION yesterday, and he suggested that one issue behind his being let go may have been his views on privatization at the VA. Let me have you listen to him for a sec.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DAVID SHULKIN: It's essential for national security and for the country that we honor our commitment by having a strong VA. I was not against reforming VA, but I was against privatization. Do you think his use played a role in his dismissal?

BLUMENTHAL: There is no question that a segment and maybe a dominant part of the Trump administration is looking to privatize the VA health care system. Dr. Shulkin resisted it and rightly so. I have no question that his opposition to privatization played a role in his dismissal. And it will play a role in the confirmation hearings that Dr. Jackson face because he's going to have to state unequivocally and clearly that he, too, opposes privatization for his nomination to be confirmed in my view.

KING: Will you ask him during the confirmation hearing if he does?

BLUMENTHAL: I will not only ask him to state his views, I will eventually demand, respectfully, but still very directly that he commit that he will sustain and, in fact, improve the current VA health care system rather than abandoning it, in effect, to a privatized system that relies on private providers rather than the VA facilities. There is a role for private providers when the wait are too long or the length of time and distance are too large. But the VA health care facility serves, very well, many veterans needs. And it should be improved to be a first-rate, world-class system rather than gradually reduced and abandoned.

KING: Dr. Jackson is a career military doctor. He also served as a personal doctor to President Obama. But the VA is a very big bureaucracy. Do you have specific concerns about his ability to lead such a large organization?

BLUMENTHAL: You know, the VA is kind of like the Mount Everest of public management challenges. It is the second largest agency in the government. It's a sprawling bureaucracy of 360,000 people with a budget of 186 billion. And it will present a challenge. And I have very strong questions about Dr. Jackson's expertise and experience to lead that kind of very, very challenging management bureaucracy.

KING: Questions that you will get to put to him. Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, thank you so much.

BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOMAK'S "FORCE FOR TRUTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.