VA Secretary Talks Reorganization, Proposed Budget In Arkansas Visit

May 24, 2019

The John L. McClellan Memorial Veterans' Hospital in Little Rock is seen in this photo.
Credit Sarah Kellogg / KUAR News

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary praised Arkansas for its commitment to its veterans while choosing not to speak as much to non-VA matters, such as proposed federal cuts to non-VA programs and comments from a Republican U.S senator from Arkansas concerning service members.

During a visit to the John L. McClellan Memorial Veterans' Hospital in Little Rock Tuesday, Secretary Robert Wilkie discussed reorganization efforts within the VA. This includes the Mission Act, which changes how veterans can receive healthcare.

"If we cannot provide a service to a veteran, then we give that veteran the option of finding that service in the private sectors," Wilkie said. He says it is not privatization and instead a program that helps veterans get the care they may not otherwise receive at VA facilities.

"[The] Mission Act will also enhance the ability of the medical director here to help veterans find what they need closer to home if need be," Wilkie said. These certified non-VA facilities would operate in a way similar to Medicare or Tricare, the healthcare program for uniformed service members. Wilkie also talked about the Whistleblower Act, which helps protect employees who expose issues within the VA.

"The message is clear, that you will be held to a high standard and that you will be accountable and that we do expect our fellow employees when they see something that is not right to tell us," Wilkie said, adding that Arkansas as a state is highly committed to serving its veterans.

"You don’t have to explain military service here. I think the people of Arkansas appreciate that the VA exists for a higher purpose and that higher purpose is to remind our fellow citizens why they sleep soundly at night, and they sleep soundly at night because of the sacrifices of others," Wilkie said.

While Wilkie talked about the proposed VA budget increases President Donald Trump outlined in his draft of the country's budget, he was less inclined to speak on matters and programs not related to the VA. One example was on the proposed cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

"The issue that you raised about the SNAP program, is more of an issue for the active duty than it is for our veterans population. Our veterans population tends to be old and they don't experience many of the same issues that the younger population does experience," Wilkie said.

When asked about Sen. Tom Cotton's comments on how sacrifices Arkansas farmers are currently making due to the United States's trade war with China are minimal compared to those fighting overseas, Wilkie declined to comment.

"Sitting as part of the VA team, with 170 hospitals and 370,000 employees, if I spent time trying to figure out trade law...one, I would lose my sense of self and two, I wouldn't be doing justice to the veterans I'm suppose to serve."