The Senate officially confirmed Robert Wilkie as the new Veterans Affairs secretary as the department rolls out both the massive VA Choice overhaul and new electronic health record system.
Wilkie was easily confirmed 86-9 Monday evening less than a month after his confirmation hearing, during which he promised to roll out the VA Mission Act carefully. President Donald Trump signed the Mission Act into law last month, consolidating all the community care programs of the VA under VA Choice.
He will take his post with widespread support from lawmakers and veterans service organizations, who also are also eying how he will manage the expansion of VA Choice.
Joe Chenelly, executive director of AMVETS, in his statement of support noted the complexity and urgency of the Mission Act's implementation. It needs to be done "in a smart and responsible way to help curb the still alarming rate of veterans suicide and ensuring all veterans have fast and reliable access to the benefits and quality healthcare they've earned," Chenelly said.
Hospitals and health systems who are set to expand their role in the VA health system under the Mission Act are also watching how Wilkie manages the mammoth task.
In a statement, Rick Pollack of the American Hospital Association praised Wilkie for demonstrating "strong management of extensive and complex organizations."
"We are confident he will be able to successfully navigate the changes the VA will make as it implements the VA Mission Act to ensure our veterans receive the high-quality care they deserve," Pollack said.
The Mission Act was passed in May but as Wilkie steps in as VA chief it is already the center of a spending feud in Congress because of a potential $1.6 billion funding gap projected for the Choice program next year. Legislators had approved a $5.2 billion extension to cover VA patients while the department establishes the new system, but that money is expected to run out in May of next year. To safeguard against this gap, Democrats and some Senate Republicans want to lift the department's caps.
But the White House and House Republicans are staunchly opposed to lifting the caps, particularly in the wake of the $1.3 trillion spending deal Congress reached in March. They want to make up the funding elsewhere.
This has put a kink in appropriations talks, and Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), one of the key lawmakers behind the VA Mission Act, said the pressure is on Congress to make sure the money is there to make sure the new program succeeds.
"When Choice was implemented it was implemented in such a way that many veterans lost faith in the program," Moran said. "We have to make sure that when Mission comes into existence, when it's implemented, we don't have any periods in which it is poorly implemented, and clearly money is a component. It needs to be funded at an appropriate time, and I'm supportive of doing that. I want it to work and if we get out on the wrong foot, many veterans are going to think that it doesn't work for them."