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Veterans organizations are worried about Trump picking Ronny Jackson to replace David Shulkin at VA: 'We don't really know much about him'

  • President Donald Trump taps White House physician Ronny Jackson to replace Veteran Affairs Department Secretary David Shulkin.
  • Veterans service organizations voice concerns about Trump's new pick to run the federal government's second-largest bureaucracy.
Ronny Jackson, physician for U.S. President Donald Trump, speaks during a White House press briefing in Washington D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018.
Al Drago | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Ronny Jackson, physician for U.S. President Donald Trump, speaks during a White House press briefing in Washington D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018.

The nation's largest veterans service organizations are scrambling to learn more about Admiral Ronny Jackson, President Donald Trump's pick to run the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Trump fired David Shulkin from the job Wednesday evening, making the announcement in a pair of tweets. The picked tapped Jackson, the White House physician, to replace Shulkin.

If confirmed by the Senate, Jackson, a career military officer with no known administrative experience, will take over as head of the federal government's second-largest bureaucracy. He will oversee the department's colossal annual budget of $186 billion and about 380,000 employees.

The immensity and complexity of Jackson's likely next job, along with his relative low profile in the veterans community, sparked concerns among advocates.

"We don't really know much about him," Garry Augustine, executive director of Disabled American Veterans, told CNBC. "We didn't have any kind of heads-up that he was being considered so we are scrambling as you can imagine to find out more about him."

Augustine, who reached out to the White House requesting a meeting with Jackson, said he was concerned about the "void of VA-experienced leadership that's going to be over there."

What we know about Ronny Jackson

The White House released a brief biography of Jackson. Highlights include:

– Qualifications in submarine and hyperbaric medicine

– Experience as a diving medical officer in an explosive ordnance disposal mobile unit and work diving safety officer

– Emergency medicine physician in the Iraq War

– Also served as White House physician for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He has also directed health care for the Cabinet and Trump's senior staff, and acted as physician to the White House and served as director of the White House Medical Unit.

– Awards include: the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Navy/Marine Corps Commendation Medal (four awards), the Navy/Marine Corps Achievement Medal (three awards), among others.

While Augustine, of the group Disabled American Veterans, noted that this is not the first time a secretary has been picked from outside the department, he said the VA's next leader has to "have some kind of institutional knowledge about the organization in order to make educated decisions."

Joe Plenzler, director of media relations of the American Legion National Headquarters, echoed the sentiment.

"The Department of Veterans Affairs is our nation's largest integrated health care system and the second largest federal department, and the Secretary of the VA is a position that requires experience and proficiency at running large health care systems," he said in an emailed statement to CNBC. "Ultimately, we will work with whomever the U.S. Senate approves for the position to ensure our nation's veterans receive the care they deserve."

However, experience running a massive organization is key to bringing the VA back to health. The institution in recent years has been crippled by inefficiencies and scandals over the services it provides to its military patients.

"The VA is more than just health care, you're talking about compensation, you're talking about education, you're talking about insurance, cemeteries, I could go on and on. So, whoever comes in as a leader needs to be cognizant of all facets of the VA system," Augustine said.

The White House and Department of Veterans Affairs did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said the department has "confidence in the president's pick" and that Defense Secretary James Mattis was not surprised by Jackson's nomination.

"It's the president's pick and it's for the president to determine who serves in his cabinet," White said.

A fight over privatization

In an op-ed for The New York Times, and in an interview with NPR on Thursday morning, Shulkin said much of the conflict he faced came from internal debate within the VA about privatization.

"They saw me as an obstacle to privatization who had to be removed. That is because I am convinced that privatization is a political issue aimed at rewarding select people and companies with profits, even if it undermines care for veterans," Shulkin wrote.

Following Shulkin's dismissal, the nation's largest veterans organization backed up Shulkin's position that privatizing the VA Department could harm veterans.

"Our 2 million members are opposed to any legislation or effort to close or privatize the Department of Veterans Affairs healthcare system, and we will continue to work vigorously to ensure our nation's veterans have the efficient, transparent, and properly functioning VA that they deserve," Denise Rohan, American Legion national commander, wrote in a statement.

Similarly, Augustine said that while he believes there is a place for options for private health care, the decision "on who should go out and when should still be a VA decision."

A White House spokeswoman told reporters Thursday that the president wasn't "currently" looking to privatize the VA.