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Veterans Affairs secretary praises Boise VA during visit: ‘Everything is working here.’

Secretary Wilkie: Boise VA seems to click

U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie visited the Boise VA Medical Center because "Everything is working here."
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U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie visited the Boise VA Medical Center because "Everything is working here."

After the U.S. Senate confirmed Robert Wilkie as U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs in July 2018, he said people asked him what his goal would be for his first year.

“It was a military goal,” Wilkie said. “It was to walk the post and calm the institution down because it had been buffeted by legions of bad stories.”

So how are things one year later?

“The place is much calmer. We are a much calmer institution,” he said in an interview in Boise with the Idaho Statesman.

Traditionally, Veterans Affairs has ranked last or near last as a place to work in the federal government’s public-services sector, he explained.

“We are up to No. 6 in one year, and we are going to go higher,” he said. “Our patient satisfaction rates are at an all-time high. The last survey we did, it was 89.7%”

Wilkie also spent much of his first year walking the post — he has traveled to 35 states visiting VA campuses.

“I felt the key to the new VA leadership was to get out of Washington,” he said. “This is a bi-partisan comment. I just think too many people get sucked into the Beltway culture and sit in those big offices overlooking the White House.”

Wilkie visited Boise’s VA campus on Wednesday.

“Boise is a special trip because there really isn’t a place in the country where everything seems to click. It doesn’t matter what it is ... everything is working here,” he said. “This is probably the cleanest and most efficient VA in the country. And I am not just saying that ... The statistics prove it out.”

One of the area’s where the Boise VA is excelling is in telehealth, which connects patients to health care services through computers and cellphones. Idaho is leading the pack in part due to a uniquely western U.S. feature.

“Even today we (on the East Coast) do not understand the scale of the American West,” Wilkie said.

When trying to explain the West’s remoteness and vastness to non-Westerners, Wilkie said he uses two examples.

“One is the loneliest sign in America,” he said. “It is in Houston on Interstate 10. It says ‘El Paso 910 miles.’ The other is it is an eight-and-a-half-hour drive from here to Coeur d’Alene, another population center in this state. We cannot understand that scale.”

To overcome these long distances, Boise VA Medical Center has begun using telehealth to connect doctors and veterans.

“Boise was the place that started this,” Wilkie said. “It allows us to reach into areas that are hard to get to.”

“On the mental health front, it creates a sea change in the way we treat those who have mental health issues because we are not forcing people to come and sit in a large room and expose themselves emotionally,” he explained. “It really is cutting edge for mental health treatment and it also allows our doctors to practice across state lines.”

From Boise, the VA has spread telehealth nodes into Washington, Oregon and Alaska.

“It is imperative that we expand our telehealth footprint,” he said. “That is another reason why I am here. It has worked. And it should be working as a model for the rest of the country.”

Top priority: Veteran suicide prevention

Wilkie said he has made veteran suicide prevention one of his department’s top priorities.

Idaho has struggled with having one of the nation’s highest suicide rates.

“Idaho had 400 suicides last year and 20% of these were veterans,” Wilkie said.

One of the challenges with veterans is most who take their lives are not in the VA system. Wilkie estimates about half of Idaho’s veterans are not in the VA system.

“This is where the federal government can help,” he said.

Under his plan, “We will open the aperture to give (Boise VA Medical Center Director David) Wood more resources to go into the community, not only the state government localities, but also the nongovernmental organizations, the tribal organizations, to help us find those veterans who are out there.”

The community of Boise is already on the right path, Wilkie said.

“There are 48 suicide and mental health programs here that this VA leadership works with in the community,” he said. “Even in our largest cities, we do not have that many.”

Rumor mill: VA not privatizing

Wilkie noted he wants to put to rest a rumor about the VA.

“One of the charges leveled at VA in the last two years is that the President of the United States is on the path to privatize this institution,” he said. “I just gave the Congress the largest budget in the history of the department, $220 billion, calling for 390,000 employees.”

“We will have a higher budget,” Wilkie said, based on his discussions for next year’s budget. “I am the only one in the Cabinet who does not have to present budget cuts,” he said. “So my response to the critics is if we are privatizing, we are going about this in a very strange way.”

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Idaho Statesman investigative reporter Cynthia Sewell was named Idaho Press Club reporter of the year in 2017 and 2008. A University of Oregon graduate, she joined the Statesman in 2005. Her family has lived in Idaho since the mid-1800s.