President Donald Trump's pick to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, Robert Wilkie, told senators on Wednesday that he would oppose efforts to privatize the VA health system as he testified in the first of his confirmation hearings for the job.
Under questioning before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Wilkie said he believes in the "centrality" of the VA in caring for the nation's veterans. "My commitment to you is that I will oppose efforts to privatize the VA," said Wilkie, a Department of Defense official who was appointed to head the Department of Veterans Affairs last month.
Privatization of the VA's health system is likely to be center stage as Wilkie's nomination makes its way through the Senate. The previous VA secretary, David Shulkin, M.D., said he was fired from the position because the Trump administration viewed him as an "obstacle" to privatization.
Trump tapped Wilkie to head to the VA after former White House doctor Ronny Jackson took his name out of consideration amid allegations of on-the-job misconduct. Jackson also said he would oppose privatization.
Wilkie, if confirmed, will take over the VA as it rolls out the recently passed MISSION Act, which reforms the beleaguered Veterans Choice program and allows a veteran to seek care outside of the VA system if his or her doctor approves. He said that his belief that the VA is central to caring for veterans plays into how he views the Veterans Choice program, saying it is fair to ease access barriers by allowing veterans to see private doctors as long as they're also interacting regularly with the VA system.
"Many of the issues I encountered as acting secretary were not with the quality of care but were getting veterans through the door to get that care," Wilkie said.
Wilkie named several other priorities he'll focus on if confirmed, including the VA's ongoing rollout of its new electronic health record system, reforming business operations and human resources and addressing a backlog of claims. The lack of leadership at the top of the VA has hindered the rollout of the new Cerner EHR. Wilkie said it is crucial for him to hit the ground running on that issue.
The EHR updates will provide a template for automating the claims process, Wilkie said, and will better allow for interoperability between the VA, the DOD and other providers. Plus, he said, it will allow the VA to harness analytics to get out in front of some of the biggest issues impacting veterans.
"It's our opportunity to turn the corner and be an industry leader on opioid use, intervention and suicide prevention," Wilkie said.