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VA secretary nominee promises opposition to healthcare privatization

by Sandra Basu

July 15, 2018
The day before the hearing, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), chairman of the Senate VA Committee, met with VA Secretary nominee Robert Wilkie. (Photo from committee’s Twitter feed)

WASHINGTON — VA Secretary nominee Robert L. Wilkie promised lawmakers he would not privatize VA healthcare if he is confirmed.

“I’m opposed to the privatization of the Veterans Affairs department and I will continue to make sure that VHA is fully funded,” Wilkie told lawmakers.

The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs approved Wilkie’s nomination earlier this month and it now goes to the full Senate for a vote. When that might occur was unknown at presstime.

His comments came last month at a hearing on his nomination. Wilkie also told the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs that he has “no doubt that VA provides some of the finest care in the America,” but that “getting to that care is something that the leadership of the Veterans Affairs Department has to focus in on like a laser beam.”

Referencing recent legislation passed by Congress, he vowed to build on those efforts. “You have infused VA with a $200 billion budget, you have passed the Accountability Act—to shake up complacency–and you have passed the Mission Act to bring institutional VA, community care and caregivers closer together. The future is up to the department,” Wilkie said.

Wilkie currently serves as the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, for which he was confirmed by the Senate in November 2017. Prior to his current position, he has served both Robert Gates and Donald Rumsfeld as Assistant Secretary of Defense. Prior to that, he was Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and a senior director of the National Security Council under Dr. Condoleezza Rice. Wilkie also served as Senior Advisor to Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC).

He said this was the third time he has undergone a confirmation process for a position.

Wilkie told the committee that “the prime directive” for VA is customer service.

“When an American veteran comes to VA it is not up to him to employ a team of lawyers to get VA to say yes. It is up to VA to get the veteran to yes—that is customer service,” he said.

On other issues Wilkie told lawmakers that “the new electronic health record system is the first step to modernize” VA’s appointment process, adding, “It is also the template to get us started on the road to automate disability claims and our payment claims particularly to our providers in rural America and those who administer emergency care.”

If confirmed, he said he would work to fill vacancies in VA leadership as soon as he could, including the Undersecretary of Health, among other positions.

“I pledged to this committee I will move as rapidly as I can if confirmed to get those people in place,” Wilkie testified.

When asked at the hearing by Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) whether he is “empowered to do what is best for veterans even if it is in disagreement with the president,” Wilkie pointed out that he has worked for some of the most “high-powered people in town” and that he is paid to “give them” his opinions or else he wouldn’t be working.

He also defended his record after he was asked about a media report on his past work for controversial figures senators Trent Lott (R-MS) and Jessie Helms (R-NC).

“Would you welcome the scrutiny that you will probably face based on your past positions to make sure you are treating women and minorities fairly and with respect, as the head of the VA, should you be confirmed?” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) asked.

Wilkie responded that he would welcome scrutiny of his entire record, pointing out he has undergone nine full FBI background checks, which ask about discrimination.

“I will stand on my record,” he said.

Wilkie’s nomination hearing comes after a tumultuous few months at VA. VA Secretary David Shulkin, MD, was abruptly fired in March. Wilkie then stepped in and served as acting secretary until Trump nominated him for the VA secretary position.

Prior to Wilkie’s nomination for VA Secretary, Rear Adm. Ronny L. Jackson, MD was nominated, but he withdrew his name from consideration as VA secretary amid controversy.

Wilkie’s nomination hearing appeared to go smoothly. After the hearing both Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), the committee’s chairman, and Tester released a statement indicating their support for Wilkie’s nomination.

“Mr. Wilkie committed to putting veterans first and I’m pleased to support him. The VA is navigating rough waters, and I will hold Mr. Wilkie accountable for serving our veterans,” Tester said in a statement after the hearing.

Isakson added that “Mr. Wilkie has the expertise and the positive attitude to take on challenges that lie ahead,” and that he looks “forward to working with him to help transform the VA into a department worthy of our veterans and one that is indicative of a nation grateful for their service.”

Meanwhile, Tillis warned Wilkie during the hearing that he will do a great job as secretary, but that he should enjoy the “honeymoon” because the “floggings will begin soon.”

“You are going to bring the intensity that is necessary, and that’s been lacking for quite some time,” Tillis said.


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