Veterans Affairs secretary nominee Robert Wilkie, right, speaks with Marion Polk, national commander of AMVETS, before he testifies at a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee confirmation hearing on June 27, 2018. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs secretary nominee Robert Wilkie pledged to make that department more customer friendly and better integrated with outside health care systems without “privatizing” veterans services in a subdued Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday.
“Many of the issues I encountered as acting secretary were not with the quality of medical care but with getting our veterans through the door to reach that care,” he told senators. “Those problems are administrative and bureaucratic … That is where VA must go.”
The 55-year-old Air Force Reserve colonel, who currently serves as the Pentagon’s under secretary for personnel and readiness, served as acting secretary for two months following Trump’s firing of former VA Secretary David Shulkin over Twitter for management problems at the department.
Several senators at the hearing referenced that leadership turmoil at VA and questioned how much interference from the White House Wilkie will face as he works to restore public faith in the department.
“We have seen VA political appointees work actively and publicly to undermine a secretary and deputy secretary who were unanimously confirmed by the Senate,” said Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Jon Tester, D-Mont.
“As we speak, the secretary and deputy secretary positions are vacant, while those same political appointees continue to collect paychecks from VA. We are seeing non-partisan senior leaders and subject-matter experts leave the VA in droves – many are concerned that sound policies and ideas are being increasingly marginalized at the expense of political interests.”
Wilkie said he was confident that he will have the ability to choose his own staff and advocate on behalf of policies that help veterans, even if his opinions run counter to White House staff.
The biggest of those issues is expected to be implementation of the recently passed VA Mission Act, which includes an overhaul of the department’s community care programs.
Critics have said administration officials are pushing too aggressively to send federal money to private-sector doctors for veterans care, hollowing out the VA health system. Wilkie defended the idea, saying that the law still leaves department officials at the center of planning for veterans health care.
But he also said that veterans need to have broader access to medical care, whether that means more department options, more telehealth opportunities, or taxpayer-funded appointments in the community.
Senators mostly passed on questions about controversies facing Wilkie in recent days, including a series of news reports outlining his defense of potentially racist and sexist policies while working for former Sens. Jessie Helms and Trent Lott.
Most members on the panel predicted an easy confirmation process for Wilkie, the son of a wounded combat veteran and a confidant of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Since the top VA job became a Cabinet level post 30 years ago, no senator has cast a vote opposing a president’s VA nominee.