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Veteran Congressman On Trump's New VA Secretary Nominee


We're going to start the program today with the recent shakeup at the Department of Veterans Affairs. President Trump nominated Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson, the top White House physician, to replace Dr. David Shulkin as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. It's a huge and complex job overseeing medical facilities around the country, hundreds of thousands of employees, not to mention programs that distribute hundreds of millions of dollars in benefits to veterans and beneficiaries. Jackson will need to be confirmed by the Senate before he officially steps into the job.

Needless to say, no one veteran can speak for all veterans, but we thought we'd like to hear from one of the military veterans serving in Congress, so we called Republican Congressman Mike Coffman. He represents Colorado's 6th District. He serves on the House Armed Services Committee, and he's with us now from Aurora. Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

MIKE COFFMAN: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: You served in both the Army and the Marine Corps. So if I may, thank you for that. So I understand that you have expressed the frustration that the incumbent of that position, whoever it is, needs to clean house. The question is, does Dr. Jackson have the kind of experience leading a large, complex organization to not just clean house but then to fix the house? Do you think he has that experience?

COFFMAN: Well, no matter how good he is, no matter what experiences he has, if he's not going clean the house, the VA will not change. It did not change under Secretary Shulkin. It did not change under Secretary McDonald. It did not change under Secretary Shinseki before then because none of them took the actions to clean house at the top. And I think that he clearly needs a strong deputy secretary who has a lot of administrative skills in terms of managing an organization that is over half the size of the United States Army.

MARTIN: Some of the veterans organizations, and frankly, some members of Congress, suspect that the real agenda here is to move faster toward privatization. Do you think that that's true?

COFFMAN: No. I know Secretary Shulkin had raised that issue. But, no, I think it's going to be the preservation of the Choice Act, which essentially states if a veteran lives a certain distance away from a VA facility or if a veteran can't get an appointment wait time within a reasonable period of time that that veteran have access to community providers that augment the capacity of the VA health care system. That program is temporary. Now we want to reauthorize it and make it permanent, make it work. It's not working very well. But that's not privatization. I think that that's just a red herring.

MARTIN: I'm wondering if you have any sense of what the Senate's posture is toward this nomination. Do you have any sense of - what are you hearing?

COFFMAN: I think he needs - in order to be confirmed, I believe he's going to have to dispel this notion of privatization. He certainly can be supportive of augmenting the Department of Veterans Affairs with community providers under the Choice program. But if he does do what Secretary Shulkin says he will do, which I don't believe he will do, he will not be confirmed.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, Congressman, it's an election year. There's a Democrat running against you, Jason Crow, who is also a veteran. A number of veterans are, you know, running this year. I wonder if you feel that that kind of interest in running for office among veterans might be part of the thing that creates a change here?

COFFMAN: Well, I think that it's good that we have veterans running and serving in Congress, either it's on the veterans committee or on the Armed Services Committee. I think there are a deficit of veterans serving on those committees that are entrusted to make very key policy decisions. And I think that that's the individual to understand those issues is another veteran.

MARTIN: That's Congressman Mike Coffman, Republican of Colorado, who represents the 6th Congressional District in Colorado. He was kind enough to join us from Aurora. Congressman, thanks so much for speaking with us today.

COFFMAN: Oh, thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.