The Department of Veterans Affairs has taken care of three million more appointments this year than all of last year, department Secretary Robert Wilkie said Friday, touting its 89.7 percent customer satisfaction rate as “the greatest of our history.”
Wilkie, speaking during a luncheon at the National Press Club in northwest D.C, said these are just some of the reasons why the department has improved in a short amount of time.
“A few years ago, VA was not in a very good place. Scandal after scandal. … I believe we have turned the corner,” he said. “We have a department that is where veterans can come because we understand the culture [and] we speak the language.”
In his nearly hourlong discussion before the nation celebrates Veterans Day on Monday, Wilkie mentioned the “Mission Act” instituted this summer that allows for veterans to seek private health care, a move critics have decried as a step toward privatization.
The secretary said his department’s $220 billion budget for about 400,000 employees and 172 hospitals isn’t the sign of an organization “trying to privatize an institution.”
Wilkie, a Trump appointee who took office in July 2018, has made veteran suicide prevention one of his top priorities. According to a report released in September by the Department of Veterans Affairs, veterans committed suicide at 1½ times higher than nonveterans in 2017. The report stated that suicide deaths have exceeded 6,000 per year since 2008.
Wilkie said other federal agencies such as National Institutes of Health, Housing and Urban Development and Department of Health and Human Services must come together to bring a wholistic approach to combat veteran suicide. This comes from an executive order Trump signed earlier this year to create a task force of these agencies to present a plan in March 2020.
“I have asked us to take a deep dive into mental health and to addiction and to homelessness,” he said. “I am confident we will have a new direction come March and I thank the administration for bringing the resources together to do that.”
A military history buff, Wilkie talked about his father serving in the Army and how he sustained combat wounds in Cambodia.
When asked who’s the greatest living veteran, he wouldn’t say. However, he praised fallen soldiers such as Needham Roberts, a Black man who served in World War I as part of “Harlem’s Hellfighters.”
He also mentioned Austin Tice, a Marine Corps veteran and freelance journalist missing in Syria since September 2012.
“Ordinary people called upon to do extraordinary things,” he said. “You can’t say who was the greatest, but it’s great to reflect on everyone who’s done the job.”