Trump VA pick boosts hopes for reform

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President Trump’s selection of Robert Wilkie to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is being praised by veterans groups as a safe, stabilizing move in the aftermath of the failed nomination of former White House physician Ronny Jackson.

Wilkie, who is serving as acting VA secretary, is a Washington insider with years of administrative experience who has previously worked on Capitol Hill as well as in the Pentagon for two presidents.

He’s drawn praise from both Republicans and Democrats, and outside advocacy groups hope he will avoid getting mired in the same ongoing fight over privatization that beset his predecessor, former Secretary David Shulkin.

“The VA has had six different leaders in last five years; it’s facing systemic problems. All the tumultuous changes are not good for veterans,” said John Hoellwarth, national communications director for AMVETS, a veterans service organization. “Veterans benefit from continuity.”{mosads}

If confirmed, Wilkie will have to walk a tightrope if he is to succeed in implementing some of the biggest reforms to the VA in decades.

Trump is expected to sign into law the VA Mission Act, a $55 billion bipartisan bill that, among other policies, will change how the agency pays for private care.

Under the bill, VA doctors will decide when a veteran should see a private-sector provider, replacing the complicated systems that are used today.

It also includes a one-year extension of the VA Choice program, which was the result of the VA health scandal that cost Obama-era Secretary Eric Shinseki his job. Congress approved the program after government watchdogs found that VA officials were manipulating data on how long veterans were waiting for medical appointments, with some veterans dying while waiting for care.

The agency also just signed a 10-year, $10 billion contract to modernize its electronic health records system, the largest such job in history. The deal had been stalled since Shulkin was forced out in March.

Trump has made reforming the VA a major political goal, and the ousting of Shulkin stoked speculation that the White House wanted to drastically expand veterans’ access to private-sector health-care providers.

The agency is also experiencing a major exodus of senior staff that has reportedly accelerated since the ouster of Shulkin, as longtime civil servants clash with Trump administration loyalists.

Rick Weidman, executive director of policy and government affairs for the Vietnam Veterans of America, said he thinks Shulkin’s downfall came about because he didn’t have the full backing of the Oval Office.

“The problem wasn’t that Shukin couldn’t control his staff, it’s that the [White House] was … backing up people who were defying Shulkin’s orders,” Weidman said.

If those loyalists can get behind Wilkie, Weidman said, he’ll succeed.

In an op-ed published in The New York Times just hours after he was removed, Shulkin blamed his ouster on forces within the administration that he said are pushing hard for unfettered privatization.

“The advocates within the administration for privatizing VA health services … saw me as an obstacle to privatization who had to be removed,” Shulkin wrote.

Democrats and some veterans service organizations believe the White House is being influenced by Charles and David Koch, conservative billionaires who back the group Concerned Veterans for America (CVA), which is pushing to loosen current restrictions on veterans receiving private-sector care.

Dan Caldwell, executive director of CVA, said he thinks Wilkie won’t face the same problems that ultimately doomed Shulkin.

“Shulkin was talking out both sides of his mouth,” Caldwell said. “He told Fox News he wanted change, but then he turned around and told [other groups] that they wouldn’t allow the Trump administration to change things. He showed a lack of integrity.”

Caldwell said Wilkie is the best choice to lead the agency and someone who is willing to implement Trump’s vision. Caldwell said Wilkie wouldn’t have been picked if he wasn’t a team player.

In a 2016 campaign rally in Virginia Beach, Trump decried the VA as corrupt and inefficient.

“Veterans should be guaranteed the right to choose their doctor and clinics, whether at a VA facility or at a private medical center,” Trump said. “We must extend this right to all veterans.”

Past secretaries “were absorbed and captured by the bureaucracy, and became its biggest defenders,” Caldwell said. “I don’t think that’s the issue with Wilkie.”

But at least one group has raised red flags about Wilkie.

VoteVets, a liberal progressive advocacy organization, said current Deputy Secretary Tom Bowman should have been picked as acting secretary when Shulkin was fired. The fact that Trump deliberately passed him over to choose Wilkie speaks volumes about his views about the agency, they said.

Democrats and veterans’ advocacy groups are concerned that the White House is taking calls for privatizing the VA system seriously, but the VA has denied that there is any such push.

“There is no effort underway to privatize VA, and to suggest otherwise is completely false and a red herring designed to distract and avoid honest debate on the real issues surrounding veterans’ health care,” the agency said in a statement last month.

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, signaled last week that his panel will take up Wilkie’s nomination next month.

In a potential boost for Wilkie’s chances, the committee’s ranking member Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), said last week he thinks Wilkie is a “strong choice” to lead the agency.  

“Right now I certainly don’t have anything that would cause me not to support him. He’s a solid guy,” Tester said.

Wilkie’s nomination follows the fall of Jackson, Trump’s personal physician, who faced questions about his experience and ability to lead the second-largest bureaucracy in the federal government.

Jackson was ultimately forced to withdraw his nomination after allegations — publicly detailed by Tester — surfaced that he mishandled prescription drugs, drank on the job and created a “hostile” work environment.  

Unlike Jackson, Wilkie has gone through an executive vetting process before when he was nominated for Pentagon posts under Trump and former President George W. Bush.

Tags David Shulkin Donald Trump Eric Shinseki Johnny Isakson Jon Tester
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