WASHINGTON — Robert L. Wilkie took office as the 10th VA Secretary after the U.S. Senate voted 86-9 to confirm him.
“I am confident that Robert Wilkie is the right leader because he has the expertise, the judgment and the character to take on the challenges that lie ahead and will bring stability and leadership to the VA,” said Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs Chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) after the confirmation vote last month.
Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs Ranking Member Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) said that “by confirming Mr. Wilkie, we do right by the millions of veterans who look to the VA for the health care and benefits they earned in service to our nation.”
Wilkie most recently served as the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, a position he took after he was confirmed by the Senate in November of 2017.
In addition to his recent DoD position, Wilkie 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). This was the third time he had undergone a confirmation process for a position.
Unlike his predecessor former VA Secretary David Shulkin, MD, he was not unanimously confirmed by the Senate with eight Democrats and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) voting against his nomination.
Some Democrats have cited concerns that Trump’s pick could put VA on the path towards privatization.
“Veterans and their families deserve a VA Secretary who will lead the department with integrity, stand up against VA privatization, and fight tirelessly to improve their lives,” House Committee on Veterans Affairs Ranking Member Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN) said in a statement.
The VA Secretary has been a cabinet position since passage of the Department of Veterans Affairs Act of 1988, which changed the former Veterans Administration, an independent government agency established in 1930 into the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Wilkie’s had an unusual path to becoming VA Secretary. When former VA Secretary David Shulkin, MD, was abruptly fired in March, Wilkie stepped in and served as acting secretary, until, in an unexpected move, President Donald Trump nominated him for the VA secretary position.
Trump had originally nominated Rear Adm. Ronny L. Jackson, MD, for the position after Shulkin’s dismissal, but Jackson withdrew his name from consideration amid controversy. Trump said that Wilkie did not even know that the White House was “putting his name up for nomination.”
After all of that, however, he was approved by the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs after a relatively drama free nomination hearing.
During that hearing he told lawmakers 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” its appointment system.
“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,” he said.
He also told lawmakers that 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,” he said.
When it comes to privatization, Wilkie vowed to lawmakers that he would not privatize VA healthcare.
“I’m opposed to the privatization of the Veterans Affairs department and I will continue to make sure that VHA is fully funded,” he told lawmakers.
Wilkie will be taking the reins at a critical time for the VA. In addition to the expected initial rollout of its new electronic health record later this year, implementation of the VA MISSION Act is also expected. The recently signed bill would streamline VA’s community care programs into one program, among other things.
“He was instrumental in moving the VA Mission Act through Congress, and I know he will be the strong leader the department needs during implementation,” said House Committee on Veterans Affairs Chairman Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN), MD, after Wilkie’s confirmation.
Meanwhile, Disabled American Veterans National Commander Dennis Nixon said that his organization believes that “Wilkie will utilize his experience both as acting secretary and as a veteran to carry out sensible reforms that enable VA to deliver high quality, timely health care and benefits services to the men and women who served.”