Robert Wilkie was confirmed Monday by the Senate to become the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. The 86-9 vote marked the first time that senators have opposed a VA secretary nominee, according to Military Times.
Eight Democrats and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., opposed Wilkie. Sanders said, “[President Donald] Trump has been very clear about his desire to move to the privatization of the VA, and I suspect any of his appointees will try and move the agency in that direction.”
Meanwhile, several Democrats on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee are asking the Office of Special Counsel to investigate the firing of various VA staff members under acting VA Secretary Peter O’Rourke. The Democrats believe they may have been politically motivated.
Wilkie, 55, an Air Force Reserve colonel, replaces David Shulkin, who was fired by Trump in March. He takes over at a time when his agency is facing several major issues, the concern about privatization being just one of them.
Military Times pointed to several issues that will have Wilkie’s attention as he takes the reins of the VA. One is a $1.6 billion funding gap in the agency’s proposed budget for fiscal 2019. Democrats and some Republicans want the money added to the budget without offsets. But the White House and most Republicans in Congress want to trim money from elsewhere in the federal budget to fill the gap.
The budget battle is related to legislation passed two months ago that reshapes the VA’s community-care program. The VA Mission Act is seen by some as a further move toward privatization opposed by some veterans groups and lawmakers. Wilkie said in his confirmation hearing that he opposes “efforts to privatize VA,” but he doesn’t agree that the community-care overhaul does that.
He takes over, too, at a time when the agency is trying to bring veterans’ electronic medical records in line with Defense Department systems, Military Times says. The cost of doing so will be $10 billion or more.