Tuesday 22 January 2019

White House doctor blames ‘baseless’ attacks after turning down new role

Dr Ronny Jackson, who had been nominated to be veterans affairs secretary, faced claims of drunkenness and of recklessly prescribing drugs.

President Donald Trump shakes hands with White House physician Dr Ronny Jackson in January (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
President Donald Trump shakes hands with White House physician Dr Ronny Jackson in January (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

By Hope Yen, Lisa Mascaro and Catherine Lucey

White House doctor Ronny Jackson has withdrawn from consideration as US veterans affairs secretary, citing “false allegations” against him.

In a statement the White House issued from Dr Jackson, he said he “did not expect to have to dignify baseless and anonymous attacks on my character and integrity”.

Shortly after Dr Jackson dropped out, President Donald Trump called into the Fox & Friends morning show to praise Dr Jackson as an “incredible man” who “runs a fantastic operation”.

Mr Trump said Dr Jackson had a “beautiful record” and that there was no proof of the allegations.

Ronny Jackson at a meeting on Capitol Hill (Alex Brandon/AP)

Mr Trump added:  “I think Jon Tester (a US senator who has been vocal about the allegations) has a big price to pay.”

The president declined to say who he may nominate next.

Asked whether Dr Jackson will remain  as White House doctor, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said: “Admiral Jackson is a doctor in the United States Navy assigned to the White House and is here at work today.”

Dr Jackson faced a series of accusations about his workplace conduct.

The latest blow to his nomination to lead the government’s second-largest Cabinet agency came on Wednesday with a set of accusations compiled by Democratic staff on the committee considering his nomination.

Based on conversations with 23 of Dr Jackson’s current and former colleagues at the White House medical unit, the summary said Dr Jackson exhibited a pattern of recklessly prescribing drugs and drunken behaviour.

Then veterans affairs secretary David Shulkin and White House doctor Ronny Jackson, left, watch as President Donald Trump talks with a patient during a Veterans Affairs (Evan Vucci/AP)

The alleged conduct included crashing a government vehicle while intoxicated and doling out such a large supply of a prescription opioid that staffers panicked because they thought the drugs were missing.

In just a matter of days, the allegations transformed Dr Jackson’s reputation as a celebrated doctor attending the president to an embattled nominee accused of drinking on the job and over-prescribing drugs.

He was seen pacing back and forth on the White House grounds on Wednesday.

Dr Jackson held talks late on Wednesday evening with top White House press staff.

I never wrecked a car. I have no idea where that is coming from Dr Ronny Jackson

They declined to comment on the situation.

Dr Jackson has been referred to as the “candyman” by some detractors for his prescriptions.

In a section on Dr Jackson’s alleged prescribing practices, the summary said that in one case, missing Percocet tabs threw members of the White House medical unit into a panic.

But it turned out he had prescribed a “large supply” of the opioid to a White House Military Office staffer.

The allegations also referred to multiple allegations of Dr Jackson’s intoxication while on duty, often on overseas trips.

On at least one occasion he was nowhere to be found when his medical help was needed because “he was passed out drunk in his hotel room”, according to the summary.

At a Secret Service going-away party, the summary says, Dr Jackson got drunk and wrecked a government vehicle.

Dr Jackson has denied allegations of bad behaviour.

Ronny Jackson pictured when he was doctor to then president Barack Obama Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

“I never wrecked a car,” he said.

“I have no idea where that is coming from.”

Reports of overprescribing and alcohol-related behavior problems can jeopardise a doctor’s license.

Many state medical boards allow doctors to keep their licences and return to practise if they complete special treatment programmes and submit to random urine screens.

He treated the people above him very, very well. He treated the people below him very, very poorly Jon Tester's opinion of Dr Ronny Jackson

The allegations were publicly released on the day that Dr Jackson’s confirmation hearing was to have been held.

The hearing was postponed indefinitely while the allegations against him are reviewed.

“He treated the people above him very, very well. He treated the people below him very, very poorly,” Mr Tester, the ranking Democrat on the Senate veterans affairs committee, said.

“It’s not surprising the people above him think he was doing a really, really good job.”

Ms Sanders said on Wednesday Dr Jackson had passed “at least four independent background checks” that found “no areas of concern”.

“He has received more vetting than most nominees,” she said.

Marc Short, the White House legislative director, could not say he was confident the allegations were false.

Ronny Jackson leaving a meeting with committee members who were vetting his nomination (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

He was “not familiar” with the car crash episode.

But Mr Short also suggested Mr Tester was airing the allegations for political gain.

“It’s quite unusual for a United States senator to take allegations that have not been fully investigated, but to flaunt them to the national public to suggest he’s the ‘candyman’ I think is outrageous,” Mr Short said.

Mr Tester, speaking on MSNBC, acknowledged that not all the allegations had been verified.

“Am I 100% rock solid sure that he did this? No,” Mr Tester said.

“But I’ve seen a pattern here that continues on and on and on.”

Veterans groups are dismayed over the continuing uncertainty at the department, already beset by infighting over improvements to veterans’ care.

“The American Legion is very concerned about the current lack of permanent leadership,” said Denise Rohan, national commander of The American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans organisation.

A watchdog report requested in 2012 found Dr Jackson and a rival doctor exhibited “unprofessional behaviours” as they engaged in a power struggle over the White House medical unit.

That report by the US Navy’s medical inspector general found a lack of trust in the leadership and low morale among staff members.

They described the working environment as “being caught between parents going through a bitter divorce”.

It included no references to improper prescribing of drugs or the use of alcohol, as alleged in the summary compiled by the Senate Democratic staff members.

The White House has released handwritten reports from Mr Trump and former president Barack Obama praising Dr Jackson’s leadership and medical care and recommending him for promotion.

Mr Trump’s first veterans affairs secretary, David Shulkin, was dismissed after an ethics scandal and mounting rebellion within the agency.

But Dr Jackson has faced numerous questions from politicians and veterans groups about whether he has the experience to manage the department of 360,000 employees serving nine million veterans.

Press Association

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