Department of Veteran Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie was President Trump's second choice to replace fired Secretary David Shulkin.
But the former Pentagon official is now running the VA said he's promised to protect the VA from politics and total privatization.
“I think there are two departments in the federal government that should be above any partisan bickering and that is Department of Defense and VA,” Wilkie said. “Partisan politics shouldn’t impact anything a veteran experiences. That’s my pledge.”
Wilkie is an officer in the Air Force Reserves and also served as the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness with Defense Secretary James Mattis before moving to the VA.
He took the oath of office on July 30 and has spent much of these first weeks on the road, including visiting Florida VA medical centers in Tallahassee, Orlando and Tampa. And Wilkie was the keynote speaker for both the national AMVETS conference in Orlando and the Jewish War Veterans convention in Tampa.
He said his top priority is to implement an electronic medical records system that is seamless, so it includes a veteran’s medical history from the VA, Department of Defense and private physicians and pharmacies.
“We’re in the midst, nationally, of a terrible opioid crisis," he said. "What this gives VA the ability to do is it will take a veteran’s record and if he has an opioid given to him by VA and someone in the private sector gives him something else – the combination of those two streams will alert VA that that individual is now on a spectrum for trouble.”
He estimates it will take five to 10 years to fully implement an electronic medical records system. The VA is partnering with the Department of Defense in the state of Washington to set up a pilot program.
Wilkie was quick to defend against lingering fears that he or the Trump Administration will privatize the VA.
“First of all, that is a legislative impossibility. The only way the VA is privatized is if our board of directors on Capitol Hill say it will be privatized," Wilkie said. "But that doesn’t mean that we cannot come up with a mix of VA and private care for our veterans.”
He reiterated his support of the current system during his address to the AMVETS audience in Orlando.
"The private sector cannot replicate the VA's expertise in many things like spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, rehabilitative services, prosthetics, audiology, services for the blind, and suicide prevent," Wilkie said.
The new VA Secretary is a history buff, and he was quick to reference a predecessor, the former WWII Army General Omar Bradley, who is credited with reshaping the VA.
“In his day, right after World War II, 30 percent of the care was in the private sector,” Wilkie said.
Thursday, several Congressional Democrats sent the VA Secretary a letter requesting details on communications the department has had with three Mar-a-Largo friends of President Trump. The letter was the result of a ProPublica report, The Shadow Rulers of the VA, that says the three non-veterans are secretly shaping policy at the VA.
Here is the department's response via written news release:
We appreciate hearing from experts both inside and outside VA as we look for better ways to serve our nation's heroes. This broad range of input from individuals both inside and outside VA has helped us immensely over the last year and a half – a period that hands-down has been VA's most productive in decades.
Under President Trump's leadership, VA has made groundbreaking progress, particularly in the areas of accountability, transparency and efficiency across the department while enjoying an unprecedented series of legislative successes.
We look forward to building on these improvements as we continue to reform VA under President Trump.