The head of the Veterans Affairs Department expects his agency will see its largest budget ever in 2020, despite a request from President Trump for all agencies to slash spending by 5 percent.
Asked at a National Press Club event in downtown Washington on Friday if VA will be subject to the cuts, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie conceded he has been “asked to offer ideas” on reductions. He declined to discuss what those ideas might look like, noting that he has yet to share them with the president. He added, however, that the administration is in just the opening stages of fiscal 2020 budget negotiations.
“Regardless of what comes out of budget process,” Wilkie said, “I am convinced that the veterans budget by the time it gets through both chambers of Congress will replace this last veterans budget as largest in our history.”
Congress allocated $209 billion to VA in fiscal 2019, a 6 percent increase over the previous year.
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Wilkie laid out his broad vision for VA during his address on Friday, promising a smoother operation than the one overseen by his predecessor David Shulkin. Trump fired Shulkin earlier this year following an ethics scandal and after the secretary waged open war on White House staffers and other political appointees at the department. He called the state of VA “better,” citing a “more experienced team in place.”
“The turmoil of the first half of this year at the department of Veterans Affairs is over,” Wilkie said, later adding that his “job has been to calm the waters.”
Shulkin has, for his part, fired back at Trump, calling the president’s administration chaotic and driven by political motivations rather than outcomes that would best serve veterans.
Wilkie praised Congress for giving VA a “roadmap for success,” pointing to the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act for making it easier to fire badly behaving or performing employees and the VA Mission Act for enabling more veterans to seek health care outside of the department. Wilkie also spelled out four broad areas he will prioritize as secretary.
Frist, as many previous secretaries have done, Wilkie promised to improve customer service. That will include “cross-pollinating ideas” so people are “no longer homesteading in one office.” In implementing the Mission Act, he said VA would consolidate community care programs to make accessing private care easier for veterans and providers to navigate. Second, he vowed to make progress on standing up a electronic health record platform that would seamlessly communicate with the Defense Department, though recent reports suggest the project is mired in technical shortcomings and infighting. Wilkie said the system would connect VA not just to Defense but also to the private sector, while promising to keep his department as the “central node in all of our veterans’ health.”
Third, the secretary said VA was “doing miracles” in addressing the opioid crisis, pointing to the 51 percent decline in the department’s opioid prescriptions. He said VA was working to improve communication with the private sector so the department could track all veterans’ prescriptions to know when they were on a “dangerous spectrum.” Finally, Wilkie said he would “transform” VA’s business systems. He suggested the department is facing the same operational problems it has dealt with for decades and said specifically he will improve its supply chain and acquisition management.
With Democrats soon to take control of the House, Wilkie said he expects to “answer more questions,” although he recently told Democrats on the House Veterans Affairs Committee he would not discuss the controversial influence members of the Trump-owned Florida resort Mar-a-Lago had over decision-making at VA, citing an ongoing lawsuit.