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We hope that by the time Robert Wilkie is confirmed as the country’s next secretary of Veterans Affairs, there’ll still be a functioning agency left for him to run. The purge being carried out by the VA’s acting boss may cause the incoming secretary big problems.
Wilkie, a Fayetteville native, was nominated by President Trump earlier this year to run the VA. He easily won the endorsement of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs last month and appears equally likely to sail through confirmation by the full Senate. He currently serves as undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, one of several high-ranking Pentagon positions he’s held during his long Washington career. He served as acting VA secretary for a few months after the president sacked former VA Secretary David Shulkin, but the law required that he return to his Pentagon job after he was officially nominated.
Since then, Acting Secretary Peter O’Rourke and several of his fellow political appointees at the VA have been, according to a Washington Post story last week, “taking aggressive steps to purge or reassign staff perceived to be disloyal to President Trump and his agenda for veterans.” That has created even deeper morale problems in an agency long beset by them.
Political infighting at the VA has created a difficult work environment, according to many people inside the federal government’s second-largest bureaucracy.
During his months as acting secretary, Wilkie quickly identified morale as one of the VA’s biggest issues, a problem that he needed to solve quickly, so he could move ahead in tackling other big issues in the bureaucracy that must serve 9 million veterans and run more than 1,700 health care facilities. Morale has been a long-term problem at the VA, from its upper levels in Washington to its clinics across the country. Good management, as we’ve seen in Fayetteville VA operations, can turn that around.
But since the beginning of the Trump administration, the political battles in VA headquarters have intensified. Although the president has denied it, there appears to be considerable pressure to privatize many of the VA’s functions, a move that has brought angry responses from many of this country’s largest veterans organizations. Privatization is believed to be one of the larger factors in Shulkin’s ouster — the experienced health-care administrator opposed it.
We’ve long believed that some move toward privatization makes sense. Many of the nation’s veterans live considerable distances from the nearest VA facility but have good options for treatment of routine medical problems near their homes. Why should they have to drive hours and maybe even need an overnight stay to deal with a health problem that has nothing to do with their military service? On the other hand, VA medical centers offer levels of skill and expertise not necessarily found at civilian hospitals for war injuries and in those cases, a veteran is best served by the VA.
But the VA’s initial moves in that direction, in the Veterans Choice program, have been plagued with problems. Funding has been limited and many doctors have stopped participating because of late payments or no payments at all. The VA needs to get that program right before it moves farther into privatization — if, indeed, it should go there at all.
It’s possible, unfortunately, that the political purges and general unrest taking place at the VA now will only make it harder to bring reform to the sprawling agency. Yet under O’Rourke, a former Trump campaign staffer, the purge goes on and the problems intensify. We can only hope that by the time Wilkie is confirmed and takes the VA’s helm, his job hasn’t devolved into a salvage mission.