TAMPA — Speaking to a gathering of the nation’s oldest veterans service organization, Robert Wilkie introduced himself Friday as new Department of Veterans Affairs secretary and touted a plan to fix one of the oldest challenges facing those who served.
A new electronics record-keeping system will streamline efforts by veterans to obtain health care and other benefits, Wilkie told those attending the 123rd Annual Convention of Jewish War Veterans. The new system is designed for smoother transition of records from the Defense Department to the VA, speeding up what can be years of waiting.
"It is long past time that warriors like my father stopped carrying around an 800-page record," Wilkie said, drawing applause from the audience. His father, Robert Leon Wilkie, was an Army officer severely wounded during the Vietnam War.
In May, as acting secretary, Wilkie signed a contract valued at up to $10 billion over 10 years with health information company Cerner Corp. to adopt the same records-keeping system as the Pentagon. The result is expected to be seamless sharing of information through a secure system among Defense, the VA and community providers.
Wilkie, on the job just over a week, also repeated a promise he made Wednesday in Orlando that he will strive to improve customer service in the government’s second largest bureaucracy.
"When a veteran comes to Veterans Affairs, it is not up to him to employ a team of lawyers to get VA to say yes," Wilkie said. "It is up to our department to get that veteran to yes."
Wilkie served eight weeks as acting VA secretary and many of the problems he encountered were not about the health care delivered through system but about getting access to health care.
During his speech, Wilkie did not address a report in ProPublica that three members of President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago golf club in Palm Beach exert unusual influence on the VA, speaking daily with officials and reviewing policy and personnel decisions. Nor did he talk about a nationwide VA investigation into claims that VA officials, including those at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa cancelled radiology exams and then tried covering it up.
But in an interview with PM Tampa Bay, on WFLA-AM radio, Wilkie said he has spoken with at least one of the Mar-a-Lago patrons before but has no daily conversations with anyone. Wilkie said he "probably wouldn’t have time to consider" such an arrangement.
On the radiology exams, a story first reported by the Tampa Bay Times, Wilkie said the procudres behind the cancellations have been addressed.
"We no longer have lack of resources excuse," he said. "Congress just handed VA a $200 billion budget."
Wilkie, who has a sister and other relatives in the Tampa Bay area, spent the past day and a half visiting Haley and the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System in St. Petersburg.
He praised Haley’s polytrauma and spinal cord injury centers, where wounded and injured commandos are treated.
Joshua Ochs, 45, of Miami, who recently retired as an Army master sergeant , said that as one of the Jewish War Veterans’ youngest members, he came away inspired by Wilkie’s speech.
"As a new veteran," Ochs said, "I know I am not going to have to face the same issues that veterans who came before me had to endure."
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman