Wilkie calls Muskogee VA facilities an example of 'how government in general should operate'

By D.E. SMOOT | Muskogee Phoenix, Okla. | Published: November 28, 2018

MUSKOGEE, Okla. (Tribune News Service) — Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie held up the leadership at Jack C. Montgomery Medical Center as an example of “how government in general should operate.”

After touring the site where lax oversight of a construction project resulted with the costly collapse of a hillside and parking lot, Wilkie commended those who “admitted mistakes,” cooperated with other agencies, and “fixed” the problem.

“I just walked that site, and until I saw it I didn’t realize — I mean, I had read about it — what this hospital was facing,” Wilkie said. “But somebody stood up and said, “Yes, we need to fix it, we’re responsible, and then moved up.”

Wilkie, who grew up in Lawton, spent the first of two days this week in Oklahoma visiting with employees at the Eastern Oklahoma VA Health Care System and the VA Regional Office in Muskogee. On Wednesday he will take part in a Tribal Nations Veterans Town Hall, an event that will take place at the Chickasaw Nation Community Center in Ada.

Veterans services being provided in Muskogee, Wilkie said, should serve as an example for the “rest of the country how VA can work, and how it does work.” He cited significant improvements that have been made with regard to primary care and access to care after an inspection requested by U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe revealed some shortcomings in administrative practices, staffing and leadership.

“Muskogee got a rap with these SAIL ratings, which existed before I became secretary,” Wilkie said, referencing the Strategic Analytics for Improvement and Learning scorecards used to measure, evaluate and benchmark quality and efficiency at VA medical centers. “But you see what happens when you have leaders who walk the floor and actually learn who their people are and learn the people they are supposed to serve — those ratings are coming up.”

Wilkie, who served as undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Defense before being sworn in July 30 as VA secretary, said he is committed to further improvements by providing the flexibility needed to address the needs of veterans where they live. He said the needs of veterans differ from one area to another.

“I have to make sure that we provide people like Mr. Morgan the flexibility with things like salaries, relocation pay to determine the kind of force he needs to address veterans in this area,” Wilkie said, referencing Director Mark Morgan’s needs when it comes to staffing Jack C. Montgomery Medical Center. “One size fits all does not work in VA.”

In addition to providing flexibility to match services to veterans’ needs, Wilkie said he and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis “are committed to creating one electronic record for each member of the military.” The electronic record, he said, will follow the individual through his or her through period of active service and beyond, replacing what can be hundreds of pages of documentation.

The electronic records, Wilkie said, would “create a continuum of service” that “allows for more complete care” of veterans with complex needs. The records system has been criticized because of a $10 billion no-bid contract, flaws exposed during preliminary tests, and links to three big donors to President Donald Trump referred to as the Mar-a-Lago Crowd and shadow rulers of the VA, but Wilkie continues to defend the system and the VA’s need for it.

Wilkie said he was not surprised to learn there were problems experienced when the program was being tested in Washington state. Using as an example his role as head of a task force responsible for making “our infantry more lethal,” Wilkie said thorough testing of any new product is essential.

“I want to know if it has problems when we are testing it. I am in trouble if it has problems if we field it,” Wilkie said. “Of course it’s got kinks: It’s a computer program, it’s going to have kinks, but I need to find it, Mattis needs to find it, and we have to make it work.”

Wilkie said for him the directive is to “keep the veteran at the center of veterans health care, not the institution.” While Congress has provided some choice through the Veterans Choice Act and the Mission Act, Wilkie said he has found “veterans want to be at the VA.”

“One thing that has happened in the last two years — you see it here, across VA — the satisfaction rates both for those we serve and for VA employees have gone up,” Wilkie said. “My guess is that with our high satisfaction rates and the choice of veterans to be around those people who speak their language and understand their culture, the majority are going to stay here as long as we provide the services they need.”

©2018 the Muskogee Phoenix (Muskogee, Okla.)
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