Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie pledged Wednesday to usher in a new era of "customer service" at the government's second-largest bureaucracy that will give veterans the care they've earned without having to resort to a "cauldron of lawyers."
In an address to the 100th national convention of the two-million-member American Legion, Wilkie also said he has the commitment of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to work together on developing a new electronic "patient-centered health care system" to allow for smooth transitions from active-duty to veteran status.
To stress the point on electronic records, Wilkie, an Air Force Reserve colonel who was sworn into office July 30, referred, as he frequently does, to the experience of his late father, retired Army Lt. Col. Robert Leon Wilkie Sr., who was severely wounded in the U.S. operation in Cambodia in 1970.
His father was 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds before he was wounded, Wilkie said, and came home weighing 115 pounds. For treatment at the VA, the second-largest government department after the Pentagon, his father had to carry around 800 pages of medical records to ensure care, he added.
Wilkie, the former assistant secretary of defense for personnel and readiness at the Pentagon, said he received a final order from Mattis, a retired Marine general, when he left the Pentagon to go to the VA: "From here on out, the Defense Department and the VA will be joined at the hip" on electronic records.
In his 21-minute address to the Legion in Minneapolis, Wilkie said the VA provides excellent care. The problem is "just getting our veterans through the door to get that care."
"The VA is about serving veterans. Our responsibility is to serve you well and honorably. My prime directive is customer service," he said, and it should not be up to the veteran "to employ a cauldron of lawyers to get the VA to say 'Yes.' It's up to the VA to say 'Yes' to them. That is where the VA must go."
In that effort, "I pledge to you that this is a bottom-up organization, that the Legion has a seat at the table, that you have an open door to the 10th floor," where his office is located at VA headquarters, he added.
Wilkie said customer service should improve under the VA Mission Act, which was signed into law by President Donald Trump in June and is aimed at giving veterans improved access to private-sector care when it is in their best interests.
He said increased funding under the act should alleviate many of the problems associated with the previous Choice Program, although Congress has yet to appropriate funding. The Mission Act is projected to cost more than $50 billion over five years.
Wilkie also repeated assurances he made at his Senate confirmation hearing that improved access to private care is not a smokescreen for the "privatization" of the VA health care system at more than 1,200 facilities nationwide.
Veterans need care from providers who can speak "in the language of veterans" and who "know what you've been through," he said, adding that that is "not an option that the private sector can provide."
The private sector also "cannot replicate" what the VA does on spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries, prosthetics, services for the blind, and suicide prevention, Wilkie said.
His electronic health records (EHR) pledge has been met with skepticism in the House, where a new oversight subcommittee has been set up to check on the $10 billion-plus contract he signed as acting VA secretary with Cerner Corp of Kansas City, Missouri.
The VA is undertaking the largest transition to EHR ever attempted in the U.S., requiring oversight from the new Subcommittee on Technology Modernization, Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said in a statement last month.
"As the department embarks on the nation's largest overhaul, it is critical that we ensure veterans and taxpayers are protected throughout the transition," he said in a statement Thursday.
Roe, a physician, said, "I have personally gone through a transition to a new health record system when I was in private practice, and I know how much potential there is for a project like this to be a costly disruption. Congress has a duty to conduct rigorous oversight every step of the way."
He named Rep. Jim Banks, R-Indiana, a former Navy Reserve supply officer and Afghanistan veteran, to head the new subcommittee.
"Service members and veterans deserve a seamless, lifetime medical record and an electronic health record system that supports the highest quality care," Banks said. "However, I have no illusions about the challenge confronting VA in this monumental undertaking."
At the beginning of his remarks, Wilkie paid tribute to the passing of Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who died Aug. 25 after a year-long battle against glioblastoma, a terminal form of brain cancer.
"A few days ago, we lost one of America's great warriors, a man whose lifetime of selfless service reminds all of us why we do what we do. I want to thank the American Legion for honoring Sen. John McCain," he said.
Wilkie made no mention of the action of Denise Rohan, the Legion's national commander, in joining with AMVETS in charging that Trump had failed to show "proper respect" for McCain by having the rooftop flag of the White House returned to full staff Monday morning.
Trump later issued a proclamation returning the flag atop the White House and on all public federal buildings and military bases to half-staff until McCain's interment this weekend at the U.S. Naval Academy cemetery.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.