A Senate panel on Wednesday questioned President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Veterans Affairs Department on how he plans to shorten lengthy appointment wait times and make health care access easier at VA hospitals.
Robert Wilkie, tapped by Trump this summer to lead the troubled agency, said that reducing wait times for veterans, which often extend beyond 30 days, would be among his top priorities. But he said it could be several years before the department’s appointment system can be overhauled.
“The 30 days is unacceptable,” Wilkie said at his confirmation hearing before the Veterans' Affairs Committee.
In the interim, Wilkie said the department’s new electronic health record system, better training for VA employees and updates to existing computer systems could expedite some appointments.
Wilkie, who briefly served as the department's acting secretary, distanced himself from efforts to privatize the department’s services.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., urged Wilkie not to fold to pressure from the Trump administration or interest groups to privatize any aspects of the agency. Sanders said he believes the department’s previous secretary, David Shulkin, was fired by Trump in part because he opposed privatization efforts.
Democrats also questioned Wilkie on reports in the Washington Post that he belonged to groups that advocated for preserving Confederate memorials and that he had worked as a Senate GOP aide two decades ago against legislation ensuring equal pay for women.
Wilkie said he had to put on his “memory cap” and said he did not remember opposing the Democratic legislation in 1997.
Throughout the hearing, Wilkie leaned on his experience as undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness to justify why he is fit to lead the VA. He also used his previous bosses to refute any suggestion of racial prejudice or sexism.
"If I had been what the Washington Post implied, I don’t believe I would have been able to work for Condoleezza Rice or Bob Gates or Jim Mattis," Wilkie said.
One of Wilkie’s former bosses, North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, said Wilkie had urged him to support a provision to a defense authorization bill that gave same-sex couples VA and social security benefits.
Despite lingering questions about the nominee’s past, the committee's top Democrat, Jon Tester of Montana, said he believes Wilkie will ultimately be confirmed.
“Enjoy the honeymoon,” Tillis quipped. “The floggings will begin soon.”
White House physician Ronny Jackson,Trump’s first pick to head the VA, withdrew amidst allegations of professional misconduct.
Watch: Trump Stands Behind First VA Pick, But Says ‘I Wouldn’t Do It’