Robert Wilkie, President Donald Trump's' nominee to become the next VA Secretary, said Wednesday that he was against "privatization" of VA health care and would work to break the bureaucratic logjams on wait times and benefits appeals.
At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Wilkie also rejected allegations that he supported "racially divisive" issues in his private life and in his past work as a staffer for conservative senators.
Wilkie said he had previously attended events of the Sons of Confederate Veterans involving the display of Confederate flags but said he "stopped doing any of those thing at a time when that issue became divisive."
He said that former President Barack Obama had sent a wreath to a Southern heritage event, an episode noted in a Washington Post report.
Wilkie also dispute the charge that in the 1990s he marked up draft legislation calling for young women to finish high school before they qualified for welfare.
Wilkie, who was working at the time for then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, said Lott and other staffers made changes in the legislation.
When asked by Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, whether he believed women should have to graduate from high school to receive government benefits, Wilkie said, "that would never enter my mind."
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, told Wilkie he expected his nomination to be confirmed, but added that Wilkie had worked for a "very racially divisive senator," meaning the late Sen. Jesse Helms, R-North Carolina.
"[And] you were appointed to this job by a very racially divisive president," Brown said.
In his opening statement, Wilkie said that there were no excuses for failing to address the VA's problems after Congress gave the department nearly $200 billion in funding and passed the VA Mission Act to overhaul and consolidate the VA Choice Program on private health care options for veterans.
Wilkie said he favored private and community care when the VA could not meet the needs of the veteran, but added that he was opposed to privatization and would keep the Veterans Health Administration fully funded.
If confirmed, Wilkie said his goal would be to make the VA more "agile and adaptive" to meet the needs of a changing veterans population.
"It is clear that the veterans population is changing faster than we realize," he said. "For the first time in 40 years, half of our veterans are under the age of 65. Of America's 20 million veterans, 10 percent are now women. The new generation is computer savvy and demands 21st Century service -- service that is quick, diverse and close to home."
Wilkie, 55, of North Carolina, had been undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness when he was moved over to the VA in March as acting Secretary after Trump ousted then-VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin.
This story will be updated.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.