Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie speaks during his first testimony before the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs' at the the Russell Senate Building in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, September 26. Photo by Pete Marovich/The American Legion

Wilkie: ‘State of the VA is better’

Newly appointed Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Robert Wilkie testified Sept. 26 before the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs (SVAC). During his testimony, Wilkie reaffirmed his commitment to preventing the privatization of VA and getting the embattled department back on the right track.

“I am happy to tell you that the state of the VA is better, and it is better because of the work of this committee and the attention paid to our department by the administration,” Wilkie said during his opening statement. “We have a more experienced team in place at all levels and it is better because we have a workforce dedicated to the care of veterans, their families, caregivers and survivors. And I will say better because the turmoil of the first half of 2018 is now in the rearview mirror.”

Committee ranking member Jon Tester, D-Mont., noted Wilkie's testimony that "this is not business as usual."

“Because the stakes are so high, collaboration and partnerships are more critical than ever. In my opinion, it looks as if the VA is disengaging with stakeholders when it should be engaging more than ever, and becoming less transparent when it should be more transparent," Tester said.

H.R. 299, The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, was at the forefront of concerns highlighted by members of the committee. H.R. 299 passed unanimously out of the House with a vote of 382-0. It is strongly opposed by the VA despite the overwhelming support by Congress and veterans service organizations, including The American Legion.

“We shouldn’t have two classes of veterans who fought just because one was on water and one on land," said Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. “But we should also not hand out benefits just because we think they ought to. We need to look at the facts and see where they lead us.”

The implementation of the MISSION Act is one of the biggest hurdles Wilkie faces. Designed to overhaul how veterans receive their health care and expand the community care program, some opponents say it paves the way for the privatization of the nation’s largest health care system.

Another issue highlighted by senators during the hearing was the concern of outside influence over the administration’s veterans’ policies. Not long after Wilkie’s June confirmation, news broke of allegations surrounding the influence of three private individuals over VA.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., sent Wilkie a letter expressing concern about reports about "private, well-connected individuals known as the Mar-a-Lago Crowd who are exercising wildly inappropriate influence over the VA. It is entirely unacceptable to the VA to put those people’s interest before what is in the interests of our veterans.”

Wilkie gave his response. 

“I am committed to making sure I am the sole person responsible to you,” Wilkie assured the committee and guaranteed there would be no inappropriate interference.

VA’s $10 billion contract with Cerner for a new electronic health record system was also highlighted during the hearing.

“We are adopting the same electronic health record as DoD so there is a seamless transfer of medical information for veterans leaving the service,” Wilkie said. “We will never have a veteran — as my father was — carrying around an 800-page paper record.”

“We don’t hear enough about the good things the agency does day in and day out,” Tester said. “There is a reason why thousands of men and women across the country work tirelessly every single day to provide veterans with the health care, benefits or services they’ve earned. And there is a reason why an overwhelming number of veterans prefer to get their care from the VA. The VA means a great deal to these folks. And it means a great deal to this country.”