Trump taps interim VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to lead agency
Story updated at 4:07 p.m. ET
President Donald Trump has nominated acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie to permanently lead the agency.
The news surprised even Wilkie, according to Trump. "He doesn't know this yet," Trump said after his announcement at a prison reform event Friday. "I'm sorry that I ruined the surprise."
Wilkie most recently served as undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. He'll need to go through the customary Senate confirmation process. He was previously confirmed as undersecretary through a voice vote last November. Wilkie was assistant secretary of defense from 2005 to 2009, and served as special assistant to the president for national security affairs under Condoleeza Rice in the George W. Bush administration.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S. released a statement saying the group wished Wilkie well through the confirmation process, and that if he were confirmed, the group would work with him for the betterment of the nation's wounded, ill and injured veterans and their families.
Denise Rohan, national commander of the two-million member American Legion, said she was happy that President Trump had made a choice.
"The VA is a symbol of our nation's commitment to our veterans," Rohan said in a statement. "The department deserves strong, competent leadership at every level to ensure our veterans receive the benefits they so richly deserve for their selfless service to our great nation."
VoteVets, a left-leaning organization said Wilkie's nomination violated a Supreme Court ruling that interim leaders at federal agencies could not be later nominated to serve permanently. The decision in National Labor Relations Board v. SW General Inc. was viewed as an effort to reign in executive power and make sure the Senate could influence senior positions.
"[Trump] is nominating someone who legally cannot continue to serve as acting secretary," Will Fischer, Iraq War Veteran and director of government relations of VoteVets said in a statement. "The absolute lack of thought Donald Trump puts into these life and death decisions for veterans is absolutely sickening and infuriating. We veterans deserve much, much better."
Trump's last pick for the post, Dr. Ronny Jackson, bowed out of the nomination process over allegations of misconduct. Trump was accused of not having gone through the proper channels to vet the candidate.
If confirmed, Wilkie's biggest task may be implementing changes to the Choice program.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed the long-delayed reforms Wednesday night, potentially teeing up a vote in the Senate before funds for the current Choice program are expected to run out at the end of May.
The bill folds all the community care options for veterans into the Choice program and opens up private provider options if VA facilities don't meet certain access standards and quality measures—an effort to address issues of long waits and poor quality care. Wilkie has been in favor of the measures.
Among the names that had been floated as potential candidates were Ascension President and CEO Anthony Tersigni and former Cleveland Clinic CEO Dr. Toby Cosgrove. House Speaker Paul Ryan suggested that Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), chair of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, and former congressman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) should also be considered.
An edited version of this story can also be found in Modern Healthcare's May 21 print edition.
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