RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Trump's pick to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs is a man named Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson, and he is facing a series of accusations about his workplace behavior. They include creating a hostile work environment, drinking while on duty and improperly prescribing drugs to staff. Senator Jon Tester told NPR's All Things Considered yesterday that more than 20 current and former members of the military who worked with Dr. Jackson came forward with these allegations. Tester is the top Democrat on the Veterans' Affairs Committee.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
JON TESTER: I think that we heard the same story from enough people repeatedly that there's a lot of smoke there.
MARTIN: NPR veterans correspondent Quil Lawrence joins us now to talk about this. Hey, Quil.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.
MARTIN: Can you explain more about the specifics of these allegations, if we know them?
LAWRENCE: Sure. There are three categories here. One was that he was handing out prescription drugs too liberally. Sounds like they were talking about sleeping pills to help with jet lag, like Ambien, that maybe were being handed out liberally without prescriptions on some of these overseas trips that he took over a dozen years he's been in the White House staff. The alleged drunkenness on duty also may have been on some of those trips. And then the last category of these allegations, that he has an explosive temper, that he made his subordinates feel on edge, that it was a toxic work environment. I should say I spoke to another former White House physician from the Clinton administration, Robert Darling, who's known Jackson for decades, and he said he didn't believe the charges at all, blamed them on disgruntled employees. But Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee have asked the White House to explain all these allegations, which, like you mentioned, Tester says they came from 20 different sources, military veterans who approached the committee out of concern.
MARTIN: So I mean, we should point out that, as you mentioned, Ronny Jackson's been in the White House a long time. I mean, he served under President Barack Obama as the chief White House doctor. He also served in the Navy. So is it strange that these things are only coming out now?
LAWRENCE: Yeah. I mean, he's an active duty Navy rear admiral. He's a combat surgeon, worked in Iraq, some of the worst of the fighting in Anbar Province there. He worked as a combat surgeon. And he worked with George W. Bush, stayed on with President Obama and then stayed on at the request of President Trump. He doesn't seem like he's been political, although, I mean, he did raise a few eyebrows in January when he pronounced President Trump to be an excellent physical and mental health. It seemed a bit hyperbolic for some of the president's critics.
MARTIN: There were already concerns, right, about Dr. Jackson's management qualifications? I mean, the VA is a really big agency. How were veterans groups feeling in general before these allegations about Ronny Jackson leading the VA?
LAWRENCE: Right. I mean, they were not concerned about his character or his service, but they had been concerned that he'd never run anything nearly as big as the VA. It has 360,000 staff. It's second only to the Pentagon in size. And he's never managed anything nearly that big. The problems at the VA have gone through three secretaries in four years. These were people who had run large organizations. And as for these, you know, these latest allegations, many of the veterans organizations have been withholding comment until they find out more details. This is all happening, sort of developing very fast. But a few of the groups have said that they're just dismayed that the White House let this mess unfold this way because VA secretaries usually get unanimous approval, like, the whole Senate.
LAWRENCE: So they want the VA to get back to helping vets and away from this political mess.
MARTIN: Which, I imagine, is trickling down. I mean, there are still people on the ground in the VA trying to do the work. And all the tumult at the top doesn't help, I imagine.
LAWRENCE: Right. And there are some important fixes that have really been settled for a while. They have bipartisan support. They've been waiting for the White House to signal that they should come through. A lot of them sound very technical - fixing the way the VA pays for outside private care - but what we're really talking about here are veterans who are waiting too long to get care. Sometimes they're in pain. We're talking about mental health care. There are still 20 veteran suicides every day. And they're waiting for someone to come in for new leadership at the VA. Now it sounds like they're going to have to wait at least a little longer.
MARTIN: NPR's Quil Lawrence for us this morning. Thanks so much, Quil.
LAWRENCE: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.