Senate confirms Robert Wilkie as VA secretary

Robert Wilkie hearing
The Senate voted on Monday to confirm Robert Wilkie as Department of Veterans Affairs secretary. (Senate Veterans Affairs Committee)

The Senate voted on Monday to confirm Robert Wilkie as Department of Veterans Affairs secretary.

Senators voted 86 to 9 to approve Wilkie's nomination. It was the first time since the VA was elevated to a cabinet agency that any senators have voted against a secretary nominee.

Wilkie, an official who originally worked in the Department of Defense, was named interim secretary after David Shulkin, M.D., was fired and was nominated to lead the agency permanently after former White House doctor Ronny Jackson pulled his name from consideration. 

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Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the ranking member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, said that he believes Wilkie is the right man for the job, and that his confirmation brings much-needed stability to the VA. 

"By voting to confirm Mr. Wilkie today, I believe we are providing stronger leadership to our veterans," Tester said. 

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who chairs the committee, said that Wilkie is "the real deal." 

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Wilkie was also easily approved by the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee last month, with only Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., voting against him over concerns about privatization at the agency. 

In his confirmation hearing before the committee, Wilkie said he would not support privatizing the VA's health system. VA privatization has been central to the debate over the secretary position, as Shulkin said he was forced out because the administration viewed him as an "obstacle" to greater privatization. 

Jackson also said he would resist VA privatization. He took himself out of the running following a series of reports of on-the-job misconduct, including that he created a "toxic work environment" in the White House. 

Wilkie was not initially a popular pick among veterans groups. VoteVets, a left-leaning veterans advocacy group, and Democracy Forward, a nonprofit that monitors the executive branch, filed suit against the VA to block his nomination as acting secretary. AMVETS also pushed President Donald Trump to rethink Wilkie as acting secretary. 

RELATED: VA may close more than 1,100 facilities to privatize more medical care 

However, AMVETS said in a statement when Wilkie was nominated to become permanent secretary that he had earned support by reaching out to veterans and working with Congress to shepherd the VA MISSION Act. AMVETS issued a statement following Wilkie's confirmation, saying the vote "offers the VA a chance to regain the organizational stability it takes to best serve veterans."

“Since being named acting secretary in March, Robert Wilkie has reached out to veteran service organizations and worked closely with the White House to learn and address the challenging issues faced by the VA,” said AMVETS Executive Director Joe Chenelly. “His Senate confirmation today means that the nation’s 20 million veterans have regained a VA that has the consistency of leadership and vision that taking proper care of our nation’s veterans requires.”

The rollout of the MISSION Act—which overhauls the former Veterans Choice program—will be one of the first major tasks Wilkie will face at the department. He will also officially take over an agency that has been reportedly purging longtime staffers who are deemed insufficiently loyal to President Trump. 

Tester referenced the political drama at the VA and said it will be "critically important" for Wilkie to address these "political forces" early on. Tester added that Wilkie will also need to come in on day one ready to deal with significant staffing shortages at the agency's health system and gaps in care for rural veterans.