The Department of Veterans Affairs is rebounding from a tumultuous 2018, Secretary Robert Wilkie said.
“After some turmoil in the first half of 2018, the state of our VA is better,” Wilkie said at a virtual town hall meeting. “It’s better because of the support of the president and Congress, and an unprecedented series of actions to reform care and benefits for veterans.”
Wilkie hosted the town hall and spoke on Capitol Hill last week to offer an update on where the agency stands on a host of priorities about 60 days into his tenure as secretary.
He was confirmed to the post by the Senate in July, following former secretary David Shulkin's firing in March amid controversy over his travel expenses. Wilkie is the second successor to Shulkin appointed by President Donald Trump; the first, former White House doctor Ronny Jackson, bowed out after allegations surfaced about his conduct on the job.
Top of mind for the agency’s leadership is the ongoing overhaul of its electronic health record system. The VA is working with the Department of Defense to build a joint governance structure for their EHRs, Wilkie told senators (PDF).
The two departments are working toward an oversight structure with a single point of accountability. They had planned, initially, for that to be the Interagency Program Office, but the Government Accountability Office warned that it’s not built to operate in that way.
“We are committed to a timeline that makes sense and are also working with DOD to understand the challenges and obstacles they are encountering, adapt our approach to mitigate those issues, and identify efficiencies,” Wilkie said.
Wilkie said Congress can expect a formal report on the governance talks in short order. Legislators have expressed concern that a leadership void at the VA on the EHR project could be hindering the process.
Genevieve Morris stepped down from her role as head of the office in late August, and John Windom has carried the load on an acting basis since. Rep. Jim Banks, R-Indiana, the subcommittee's chair, warned that "deteriorating and rudderless" leadership could be holding back progress on the program.
Wilkie also provided an update on the status of another crucial healthcare priority: implementation of the MISSION Act. The agency has created a management office to oversee the effort, with individual project teams to tackle specific elements of the law.
The MISSION Act sunsets the Veterans Choice program and allows veterans to seek care with doctors outside of its system if their VA physician recommends it or if it’s hard to visit a VA facility.
The law also expands the VA’s assistance program for family caregivers, and Wilkie said that will roll out in two phases: Veterans injured in the line of duty before 1975 will be eligible first, with those injured between 1975 and 2001 to follow in two years.
A timeline for the remaining veterans has not been set, Wilkie said, but he expects to report back to Congress on that in the near future.