VA Secretary: ‘I think there’s going to be a reckoning’

Calls for a conversation on how to better care for veterans in wake of COVID-19 deaths

President Donald J. Trump, joined by U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie, signs H.R. 2147, The Veterans Treatment Court Improvement Act of 2018 Monday, Sept. 17, 2018, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)
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U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie said Massachusetts had not adequately prepared for emergencies at two soldiers homes where dozens of aging veterans died as a result of COVID-19.

“I think there will be a reckoning,” Wilkie said regarding failures at such facilities, as he called for a conversation about how to better care for the nation’s veterans.

Wilkie spoke to reporters recently via an online editorial board meeting, hosted by Michael Graham and Inside Sources, which enabled newspaper editors from around the country to take part in a conversation with Wilkie.

Sun Editor Tom Shattuck asked Wilkie about the horrific loss of life suffered at state soldiers homes in Holyoke and Chelsea, where 76 and 31 veterans died respectively as a result of COVID-19.

Wilkie first pointed out that the VA doesn’t really have direct oversight of the homes, which are state-run. He said federal law prohibits the VA from having operational control over the homes. He said the VA does provide guidance to them, though, and that the VA had advised the Holyoke Soldier’s home on infection control practices in early February.

“There was not an emergency operation in place, or procedures that had been gamed out when the crisis hit,” Wilkie said.

Wilkie said that while the VA operates 134 nursing homes nationwide, only 10 veterans in VA nursing homes have tested positive for COVID-19, even though the veterans in the VA system tend to be more frail than those who only qualify for benefits from the state homes.

He then predicted hard questions as officials move forward and look at how the nation can best take care of its veterans.

“I think there’s going to be a reckoning, and reckoning in the sense that we better have a conversation about how we take care of America’s most vulnerable,” Wilkie said. “We are in a lot of state veterans homes now helping rescue those institutions and patients.”

Wilkie, who has served in the Navy Reserve and Air Force Reserve, where he is currently a colonel, took over as acting VA secretary in March 2018, and was confirmed as the permanent VA secretary in July 2018 after being nominated by President Donald Trump. He has several law degrees and previously served in senior positions in the Department of Defense, with a large engineering firm, and with several congressmen.

Wilkie also fielded questions from other editors around the country, and detailed his efforts to change the culture at the VA, respond to the pandemic, and to rapidly increase the use of telemedicine while also expanding the VA’s mental health services and efforts to prevent veteran suicide.

The secretary said that the VA operates 134 nursing homes across the country with about 7,500 patients, and that only 10 of them have tested positive for COVID-19.

“The reason those numbers are so low is that we took drastic measures long before the rest of the country woke up to this,” he said, citing early but “sad” restrictions on visitors and family members entering those facilities.

Wilkie said the VA system has also tested extensively.

“We test them. We test all of our employees who are in there. And we have seen the results of that,” Wilkie said.

He said that out of the 9.5 million veterans the VA serves nationwide, about 26,000 have tested positive for the virus, while about 19,000 have recovered and 1,700 have died. Of those who died, 924 were in VA hospitals.

Wilkie said the agency is stocking up on supplies for a tough fall and winter as well in case the pandemic continues to grow.

Asked about his efforts to implement reforms after years of scandals within the VA, Wilkie said he has tried to focus the agency on “customer service,” and to make it a more bottom up organization that listens to those on the front lines.

“I’m not a doctor. I’ve never played one on television,” he said.

He said the agency has let go of over 1,000 people who weren’t performing up to standards, and said he has tried to install a leadership team that understands military culture. Wilkie is one of the few VA secretaries to hold the post while still serving in the military as well.

“This is a unique institution with a unique family. If you don’t understand the culture, then you don’t speak the language. And if you can’t do that, you don’t have credibility when you walk into a room full of people who have been in the toughest spots on the planet,” Wilkie said.

He also said the pandemic has helped push a massive move toward telemedicine, which has also been used to expand mental health services.

“This is the wave of the future, particularly in mental health,” Wilkie said. “We know that many of our veterans who need mental health services are more comfortable in the privacy of their home, in a family member’s home, in a friend’s home, talking to us rather than traveling and being put in a large clinical setting. So, we’ve seen the future out of this tragedy.”