VA secretary nominee withdraws amid allegations of opioid overprescribing, drunk driving

Navy Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson in a statement issued Thursday announced that he has withdrawn his nomination for Veterans Affairs (VA) secretary, following allegations that he overprescribed opioids and crashed a government vehicle while intoxicated.

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Background

Lawmakers and veterans service organizations had questioned whether Jackson had the management experience needed to lead VA, which has 1,200 medical facilities across the United States. In addition, the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs has been investigating concerns regarding Jackson's oversight of the White House medical office, which included allegations that the office was a hostile work environment and permitted the overprescribing of drugs, as well as claims that Jackson consumed alcohol while working.

The committee had been scheduled to hold a confirmation hearing for Jackson on Wednesday, but the panel on Tuesday announced that it was delaying the hearing to further investigate the allegations.

Trump early on Tuesday said he continued to support Jackson, though he added, "I really don't think personally he should" proceed with the nomination, noting "abus[e]" directed at Jackson "by a bunch of politicians that aren't thinking nicely." Still, Trump said, "But it's totally his—I would stand behind him—totally his decision."

The White House later on Tuesday expressed additional support for Jackson. A senior White House official said, "Jackson's record as a White House physician is impeccable. He has improved unit morale, received glowing reviews and promotions under Republican and Democrat presidents, and has been given a clean vet from the FBI."

New details emerge

But on Wednesday, Democrats on the Senate VA committee released a report summarizing interviews conducted with 23 of Jackson's current and former colleagues. According to the report, most of the interviewees "raised serious concerns about Jackson's temperament and ethics, and cast doubt on his ability to lead" VA.

The report detailed alleged misconduct involving Jackson's prescribing practices, cultivation of a "hostile work environment," and drinking habits. According to the report, White House staff had dubbed Jackson the "Candyman" because he would prescribe prescription drugs without paperwork. For instance, doctors, physician assistants, and nurses interviewed for the report said Jackson would prescribe Ambien and Provigil to individuals on Air Force One without reviewing their medical histories. The report also stated that Jackson in one instance "had provided a large supply" of the opioid drug Percocet to a White House Military Office staffer, and that Jackson "had private stocks of controlled substances."

In addition, several of the interviewees described Jackson as "unethical" and "explosive." They said the daily working environment he created in the White House medical office was like "walking on eggshells"—with subordinates working in "constant fear of reprisal."

Further, interviewees detailed several alleged instances of drunkenness while on duty. According to the report, many of the incidents occurred during overseas travel when Jackson was either "on duty" or "holding [his] medical bag." In at least one instance, "Jackson could not be reached when needed because he was passed out drunk in his hotel room," the report stated. In another instance, Jackson allegedly got drunk at a Secret Service party and wrecked a government vehicle, according to the report.

Jackson denies allegations

Jackson on Wednesday denied allegations that he crashed a government vehicle while intoxicated. "I never wrecked a car," he said, adding that he has "no idea where that is coming from," The Hill reports.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Wednesday said Jackson's record is "impeccable" and said Jackson underwent "more vetting than most nominees," receiving four background checks that did not raise concerns.  

Still, Jackson on Thursday withdrew from consideration for VA secretary. In a statement released by the White House, Jackson said, "Unfortunately, because of how Washington works, these false allegations have become a distraction for [Trump] and the important issue we must be addressing—how we give the best care to our nation's heroes" (Slack, USA Today, 4/26; Luthi, Modern Healthcare, 4/25; Everett, Politico, 4/25; AP/Los Angeles Times, 4/25; Bolton, The Hill, 4/25; Rampton/Holland, Reuters, 4/25; Gardner et al., Washington Post, 4/25; Fabian, The Hill, 4/25; Senate report, accessed 4/26).

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