Robert Wilkie, who was confirmed overwhelmingly by the U.S. Senate as the new Secretary of Veterans Affairs, takes over a department that President Donald Trump has vowed to shake up by firing "bad" employees and steering more veterans toward private health care. The head of a veteran support agency in Buffalo says change is good, though no one's talking about replacing or fully privatizing the VA.
Wilkie brings a mix of government and private experience into his new position, leading the federal government's second-largest department. The Department of Veterans Affairs runs on an estimated $200 billion budget and employs about 360,000 people who serve an estimated nine million veterans.
President Trump wants to encourage more private health care involvement and boasted expansion of a program called Veterans Choice while speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention Tuesday. Under the program, veterans who wait 30 or more days for an appointment at a Veterans Administration health care facility are eligible to seek care by a private doctor, at the government's expense.
Veterans One-Stop Center of Western New York president and CEO Chuck Marra says examining and pursuing needed change in any organization, including the VA, is good. But he was also quick to defend the level of service provided by the VA Hospital in Buffalo, which receives numerous referrals by Marra's organization.
"The Veterans Administration here in Buffalo, whether it is services, benefits or medical care, has really done a great job serving our referrals, our veterans that we send over to them," he said.
Wilkie, prior to his confirmation, assured Senate Democrats he has no intention of privatizing the VA and vowed to keep its health care funded. Marra says the VA cannot and should not be replaced.
"I don't think replacement is even a thought," he told WBFO. "Certainly, maybe to tweak services, to make them better is always a good thing. Any organization, I don't care what type of organization it is, that introspective look many times is a good thing. Always asking the question how can we take care of the customer better is always a good thing."
Some of Trump's claims of "big success" Tuesday, meanwhile, are exaggerated or simply not true. According to an Associated Press fact check, "under a newly expanded Choice program that will take at least a year to implement, veterans will still have to meet certain criteria before they can see a private physician."
Wilkie was selected to head the VA in May after Trump fired David Shulkin. The president's first choice for the position, White House doctor Ronny Jackson, withdrew from consideration after accusations of workplace misconduct came to light.