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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Robert Wilkie

Statement of the Honorable Robert Wilkie Before the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees
Joint hearing on Veterans Community Care Program implementation
Washington, DC
December 19, 2018

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you, Chairman Isakson, Chairman-elect Takano and Senator Tester, distinguished members of both committees. I want to thank you for the opportunity to address the efforts underway to implement the VA MISSION Act, as well as share with you the governance and management approach instituted over the last 130 days. As you have said, we are on the cusp of the greatest transformative period in the history of VA, and your leadership led to the passage of the historic legislation.

As I testified in front of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee earlier in the year, I'm happy to report that the state of the Department of Veterans Affairs is better, and it is better because of the work of these committees and the attention paid to our department by the president. As secretary, I have visited 17 states in 130 days, 23 hospitals from Anchorage to Orlando, four claims processing centers and the Veterans Treatment Court in Maryland, and I, as Senator Tester said, am astounded by the commitment of the VA workforce. It is dedicated, and it is, in my opinion, the finest workforce in the federal government.

Today I'm honored to have with me two senior VA leaders—Dr. Steven Lieberman, the current executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration, and Dr. Melissa Glynn, the assistant secretary for Enterprise Integration. We are committed to implementing the MISSION Act by June 2019 and describing how that commitment is being fulfilled. We have established a task force representing key offices across VA and guided by experienced program leaders.

We now have a battle rhythm of progress reviews to align resources, identify and mitigate risk, and deliver on the promise to transform VA health care that puts veterans at the center of everything that we do. This effort is emblematic of a new governance and management structure we have established throughout the department. That is how we were able to identify that the technology supporting the GI Bill implementation wasn't tenable.

I made the decision to define a new approach to deliver education and housing benefits to our veterans and their family members. I want to emphasize that we will execute the law as written and every Post-9/11 GI Bill beneficiary will be made whole for their housing benefits based on both Sections 107 and 501 of the Forever GI Bill. I made the decisions not only to stabilize the delivery of services but to improve the current Choice programs.

The expansion and extension of the TriWest contract ensures access to community care for our veterans. The decision allows for smoother transition to the Community Care Network contracts when awarded. After multiple delays prior to my arrival at VA, the acquisition process and subsequent awards are back on track. Community Care Regions 1 through 3 will be awarded before the end of February 2019, and Region 4 is expected to be awarded in March.

Once active, these contracts will support a key pillar of the MISSION Act by giving veterans expanded choice in their health care. As part of our new Community Care Program, we are addressing the timeliness and accuracy of payments to providers. We are moving away from paper claims and requiring providers to submit electronic claims through our new electronic claim administration and management system that will be deployed next year. Through the MISSION Act, we've established a center for innovation for care and payment to develop new approaches to testing payment and service delivery methods. The center has developed a charter and is developing criteria for pilot projects to drive health care quality and efficiency.

Another pillar of the MISSION Act is groundbreaking support for caregivers. There are 5.5 million veteran caregivers across the country. I had the privilege several weeks ago to address the third annual national convening of military and veteran caregivers jointly sponsored by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation and Veterans Affairs. The work of Senator Dole to invest in caregivers and their experiences strengthens our ability to successfully execute an expanded Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers under the MISSION Act.

I would be remiss if I did not thank the foundation of the VSOs for their efforts to make sure that this benefit is incorporated into the legislation. I will take the opportunity also to thank, in person, someone who is familiar to all of you, and who was instrumental not only in the development of the MISSION Act and the caregiver program, but someone who has been on point for veterans for many years. He is retiring, and that is Garry Augustine of Disabled American Veterans; I thank him for being here as well.

The other most meaningful aspect of this legislation is the series of related products that ultimately support the work of the Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission. These include outputs of national market assessments and our strategic plan and a data-driven asset and infrastructure assessment and recommendation with input from our veterans, employees, VSOs, local communities and other key stakeholders. VA is embracing the opportunity to assess our footprint and develop recommendations for modernization and realignment of facilities.

Mr. Chairman, I would like to beg your indulgence for a minute. I'm going to go off script, and it's partially in response to a series of stories that I read this morning, stories that have particular meaning to so many members of these committees; and that is on the issue of suicide prevention.

When I was acting secretary of the department for eight weeks, I declared that suicide prevention is the number one clinical priority of the department. In addition to that, I named a permanent head to our Office of Suicide Prevention, Dr. Keita Franklin, who was the head of our efforts at the Department of Defense when I was the undersecretary.

In addition to that, we have developed with the Department of Defense a streamlined and comprehensive program to begin addressing the issues that impact our veterans and the issue of suicide, beginning from the time that they enlist. Our Transition Assistance Program is done in conjunction with Secretary Mattis, and now thanks to the work of this committee, we are including other-than-honorable dischargees in our education and outreach efforts when it comes to suicide.

The tragic aspect of this is that for the 20 American warriors who take their lives on a daily basis, 14 of those warriors are outside of the Department of Veterans Affairs. When I have gone across the country, I have asked governors, I've asked mayors, I've asked VSOs to help us find those veterans. When I was in Alaska recently, I spoke to the Alaska Federation of Natives. Fifty percent of the veterans in the state of Alaska are outside of the VA system and I've asked them to help us find those who might be in danger. Suicide prevention is the number one priority of this department when it comes to our clinical efforts to keep our veterans healthy and well.

In addition to that, I do want to say that I echo what Senator Tester said. Last week, Dartmouth, in the Annals of Internal Medicine, indicated that the Department of Veterans Affairs’ health care is as good as or better than any in the private sector. That is a story I wish to tell.

The other part of that story is—and it will come as a confounding statement for some in the press that a conservative Republican is here saying this—I am incredibly proud to be part of the workforce that I consider to be the finest in the federal government. In my travels, I have seen the dedication of our men and women, 370,000 strong, and it is my pledge to tell the good news stories that they have created on behalf of our veterans.

In addition to that, another story that I am proud of is that the Partnership for Public Service, for the first time in memory, has now included the Department of Veterans Affairs in the top third of all federal departments when it comes to workplace satisfaction and the pride that our workers have in being part of the VA. That is a great step forward. Without that pride, we will not be able to deliver the kind of customer service that our veterans expect.

In addition to that, I'm also happy to say that when Time issued its list of the 50 most influential health care minds and providers in this country, the Department of Veterans Affairs had researchers on that list. It is a good news story to tell. It is one that I am proud to tell, and I am very happy and humbled to be part of that outstanding workforce that, on a daily basis, helps veterans remind all of us why we sleep soundly.

Mr. Chairman, I thank you for the indulgence and look forward to your questions.