INDIANAPOLIS -- The head of the Department of Veterans Affairs is promising a robust budget for fiscal 2021, claiming it's the only Cabinet-level agency the Trump administration has not required to make cuts.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie told a crowd at the American Legion National Convention on Wednesday that he expects his department's funding to grow in the coming years.
"I was privileged to present the largest budget [in] the history of this department to the U.S. Congress -- $220 billion," he said to applause from convention-goers, who are celebrating the convention's 101st year. "I'm the only member of the president's cabinet who was ordered not to present any budget cuts to the Office of Management and Budget. And I can tell you that I have the same standing orders for next year's budget."
Congress has yet to pass the fiscal 2020 budget request, which includes a 9.5% increase for the VA over fiscal 2019.
Wilkie's comments were meant to dispel rumors that the VA is on the road to privatization.
"A $220 billion budget calling for a workforce of 390,000 employees is a very strange way to privatize a department," he said. "Our care is as good or better than any in the private sector, and our veterans are voting with their feet."
Wilkie pointed to data from the last year to support his assertion. The VA “completed more than 1.2 million more appointments through May 21 in fiscal 2019 compared to the same period the prior year,” according to a department release. And he reiterated that the department has devoted more resources and manpower toward suicide prevention and dealing with the opioid epidemic.
Of the average 20 veterans who die by suicide daily, about half are over the age of 65 and likely served in the Vietnam war, Wilkie said.
The growing disparity between how many of those vets are likely to take their lives versus how many are actually treated is what prompted the VA to act, he added.
"Any veteran that walks through our doors ... is now screened for mental health, and provided same-day mental health care," he said but added, "We will not get anywhere on veterans suicide until this nation has a national conversation about life."
Wilkie said that talking more openly about suicidal thoughts in the active-duty forces has already led to more targeted care.
He recently told a local Boise, Idaho, news station that the VA has screened close to a million veterans for suicide prevention since last October. Partnerships between the VA and the American Legion will allow for more outreach programs, he said.
"There is important legislation in the Congress now that will let VA direct funding to groups like yours to community partners across the country so they can support veterans at risk of suicide," Wilkie said. The measure, known as the IMPROVE Well-being for Veterans Act and introduced in June by Sens. John Boozman, R-Arkansas, and Mark Warner, D-Virginia, would establish a new VA grant outreach program and allow for closer cooperation between nonprofits and state and local organizations.
The VA's demographics are also changing, which has led officials to recognize the department needs additional, specialized care, Wilkie said.
In the early 1960s, women made up less than one half of 1% of the force.
"The force I was responsible for under General [Jim] Mattis was 17% [female], and is going up to 20%," Wilkie said. "That means that 10% of those we serve are America's women warriors. By the end of the next decade, that figure will be at 25%."
Some VA locations are already dealing with this development. For example, roughly 20% of all veterans who come through the doors at the Fayetteville, North Carolina, VA facility are female, he said. "So the future is not only happening in North Carolina, it is happening across the country."
The secretary also touted the landmark Mission Act, the program that allows veterans to go to an urgent care facility for acute illness or injury and also provides private health care services if a veteran is lives too far from a VA facility or cannot get an appointment. The act, signed by President Donald Trump in 2018, took effect June 6 and is currently adding more urgent care clinics to create a network of walk-in community providers.
"This president has revolutionized the way we look at veterans by saying conclusively that it is VA's job to fit the needs of the veterans instead of forcing America's veterans to design their health care around the needs of the VA bureaucracy," Wilkie said. "We are finally on the cusp of providing veterans 21st-century medicine."