The Senate on Monday voted overwhelmingly to approve Robert Wilkie to serve as secretary of the Veterans Affairs Department, the second confirmed to the position under President Trump.
Wilkie, who served as acting VA secretary after President Trump fired David Shulkin earlier this year (until Wilkie was nominated to fill the position permanently), will enter his new role at a precarious time for the department. It is in the midst of implementing several key reforms, including an overhaul of how the department provides care to veterans. The changes have led to a fight over the extent to which VA patients should have access to private health care, though Wilkie has swept aside any accusations that he will seek to privatize the department.
Still, that fight as well as other issues raised against Wilkie, led the nominee to be the first VA secretary in the history of the department, in its current form, to receive any oppositional votes on the Senate floor.
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VA is also facing allegations of political bias in the treatment of top career civil servants and misplaced interpretation of a new law to ease the disciplinary process for malfeasant and underperforming employees, potential mass closures of department facilities, internal disputes, changes to disability claims processing and lingering fallout from an array of recent scandals.
In his confirmation hearing, Wilkie said he has no interest in privatizing the department and he promised to fill vacancies throughout VA. He also knocked down reports questioning his commitment to diversity and antidiscrimination efforts.
Wilkie was nominated to the position after Trump’s initial replacement for Shulkin, Ronny Jackson, was forced to withdraw when questions surfaced about his management experience and his record as a White House physician. Trump nominated and the Senate confirmed Wilkie last year to serve as the Defense Department’s undersecretary for personnel and readiness.
Wilkie said his top priorities as secretary will be to improve access to health care by implementing a recently signed law to ease veterans' access to private care on the government’s dime, reduce the claims backlog, reform business systems and improve the culture of VA to offer “world-class customer service.” Despite the recent passage of the MISSION Act, Wilkie said he has no interest in broader efforts to eliminate the government’s role in providing care and services to veterans.
Wilkie acknowledged the law was a “radical change,” and promised to move quickly to find private sector partners to create a “community network” to supplement the department’s 1,200 VA medical facilities. Still, he pledged to keep VA central to any care veterans receive.
The secretary-designate also promised to boost pay rates for low-ranking VA employees to address turnover.
Lawmakers have warned Wilkie they will hold him accountable for implementing the changes he promised.
“Enjoy the honeymoon,” Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said at Wilkie’s confirmation hearing, “because the floggings will begin soon.”