WASHINGTON — Robert Wilkie, acting secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, responded Tuesday to photos of a dirty VA clinic room in Salt Lake City by stressing the need for more private-sector health care to supplement VA services.
In a statement Tuesday, Wilkie pushed Congress to pass legislation by May 28 to reform the VA Choice program, which allows veterans to go into the private sector for medical care. Wilkie’s comments came after Chris Wilson, an Army veteran who took the photos of the dirty room that went viral on the internet, appeared on Fox and Friends on Tuesday morning.
Brian Kilmeade, co-host of Fox and Friends, asked Wilson about his experience with the VA and whether he thought it was indicative of systemic problems.
Wilson’s photos, which quickly spread on social media over the weekend, show an overflowing trash can, medical instruments strewn on the counter and a filthy sink in his exam room. Besides the dirty room, Wilson said he faced long wait times at the VA, and that his six-month, follow-up appointment was set for February 2019 – 10 months away.
“Would going to your own physician be something that would fix it right away, allowing the same funding to use private?” Kilmeade asked.
A series of photos showing the condition of an exam room at the Salt Lake City VA clinic rocketed across social media Friday, prompting an apology from the hospital system’s chief of staff and triggering an investigation.
“Choice would be very helpful,” Wilson responded. “It would take the strain off the VA system. It would give veterans more options to get their treatment where they would like to, closer to their homes. People have to drive 150 miles to be seen at the Salt Lake clinic. It’s a mess.”
Wilson’s take on the issue is one often used by advocates who push for expanding the amount of private-sector care for VA patients.
“Chris’s comments in support of health care choices outside of VA serve as an important reminder how critical community care is for our nation’s veterans, particularly in rural areas common in states like Utah and Montana,” Wilkie said in his statement.
The debate over the VA Choice program has been long and contentious, and former VA Secretary David Shulkin blamed it for his ouster in March. He said some political appointees at the VA viewed him as an “obstacle to privatization.”
On Monday, the liberal-leaning group VoteVets accused Wilkie in a lawsuit of working on behalf of President Donald Trump to privatize the VA.
Lawmakers and veterans advocates agree the VA Choice program needs to be fixed, but there’s disagreement over how far veterans’ care should be pushed into the private sector. Many veterans organizations believe “unfettered choice” would erode VA resources and eventually dismantle the agency.
The Choice program is expected to run out of funding in early June, and the shortfall could soon disrupt appointments for thousands of veterans.
“America’s veterans need Congress to come together now to support this crucial program and pass legislation before Memorial Day that will make it permanent,” Wilkie said. “Veterans like Chris Wilson deserve no less.”
Wilkie described the situation with the dirty exam room, as well as Wilson’s 10-month wait for a follow-up appointment, as “unacceptable.”
The VA is “doubling down” on making certain their treatment areas meet standards, he said. Wilkie also promised he would work with facility leaders in Salt Lake City to secure Wilson a timely six-month visit.