VA Secretary nominee Robert Wilkie said that removing the red tape roadblocks to getting veterans "through the door" to see a doctor would be his top priority if he is confirmed by the Senate.
"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 told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Wednesday at his confirmation hearing.
As acting secretary, Wilkie last month awarded a 10-year, $10 billion contract to Cerner Corp. of Kansas City, Missouri, to upgrade electronic health records at the VA in the effort to reduce wait times. But senators on the Committee said the implementation could take years.
Wilkie agreed that it will take time to put the Cerner contract into effect and added that the VA also has a problem with its schedulers who make the appointments. He cited the high turnover rate among schedulers, saying the VA had a hard time hanging onto them.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, chairman of the Committee, and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, the ranking member, told Wilkie that he would be taking over a department with a dispirited workforce buffeted by high turnover rates and political infighting that led to the ouster in March of then-VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin.
"Of all the challenges we have at VA, morale may be the biggest problem," Isakson said. "You are getting an agency that has problems, that's in need of help."
"Mr. Wilkie, there are no excuses anymore. Failure is not an option," he added, noting that Congress had authorized nearly $200 billion for the VA's budget and passed the VA Mission Act to overhaul and consolidate the VA Choice Program on private health care options.
Isakson asked Wilke what "customer service" means at the VA.
"Customer service means before the veteran walks through the door of the VA he's already been greeted by schedulers, by medical professionals," Wilkie responded. "I have no doubt that VA provides some of the finest care in America but I also understand that getting to that care is something that the leadership of the Veterans Affairs Department has to focus on like a laser beam."
Tester warned Wilkie that he would eventually come into conflict with Trump administration political appointees within the VA and at the White House who had pressed for a rapid expansion of private health care options.
Shulkin, who had been mired in a scandal over his travel expenses, charged that his firing by Trump was ultimately the result of the "undermining" of his leadership by the political appointees because of his resistance to the "privatization" of VA health care.
"Sooner or later, you're going to come to a crossroads with these folks," Tester said of the political appointees. "My only advice to you is to take the cues from the veterans and do what you think is right, even if political forces threaten your job, because I want you to succeed. I really want you to succeed."
Tester also pressed Wilkie on where he stood in the current dispute between acting VA Secretary Peter O'Rourke and VA Inspector General Michael Missal over access to data on whistleblower complaints.
In an angry exchange of letters, O'Rourke told Missal that he was out of line in demanding access to the data.
"You are reminded that OIG [the Office of Inspector General] is loosely tethered to VA and in your specific case as the VA inspector general, I am your immediate supervisor. You are directed to act accordingly," O'Rourke wrote to Missal.
Wilkie described himself as a "recovering lawyer" but said it was his opinion that "The IG is an integral part of any organization. The IG is a partner, he is not subordinate to the secretary." Interference with the work of the IG could possibly be criminal, Wilkie said.
Wilkie was not President Donald Trump's first choice to lead the VA. Trump had named Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, his personal physician and head of the White House medical unit, to succeed Shulkin, but Jackson withdrew his name amid allegations of improper conduct at his White House job.
Wilkie, 55, of North Carolina, had been the Pentagon's undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness when he was moved over to the VA as acting Secretary in April. He had to step down temporarily under a regulation barring an acting secretary from succeeding to the permanent post.
O'Rourke, who had been the VA's chief of staff, was named acting Secretary pending Wilkie's nomination. Isakson told Wilke that he expected a vote by the full Senate sometime next month to allow him to take charge of a department serving nine million veterans annually with a workforce of more than 350,000.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.