Veterans Affairs

Vacancies Act rules won't hold up Wilkie nomination

Acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie

Robert Wilkie is the Department of Veterans Affairs' acting secretary, and President Trump's pick to lead the department permanently.

The leaders of the Senate committee who will hold the confirmation hearing for Robert Wilkie to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs said they didn't expect the nominee's status as acting head of department to be a problem.

The Vacancies Act puts some restrictions on the nomination of acting officials to take over that role on a permanent, Senate-confirmed basis.

Wilkie, who is the Department of Defense's undersecretary for personnel and readiness, has been leading VA since David Shulkin was fired in March. President Donald Trump made a surprise announcement of his pick of Wilkie to be VA secretary at a May 18 White House event.

Sens. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said that any problems with Wilkie's acting status would not hold up the confirmation process.

"We've been playing a little phone tag, but if need be I think he's willing to step down," Tester said at a May 22 press conference touting an upcoming vote on the VA Mission Act.

Tester also signaled likely support for Wilkie, referring to the nomination as a "strong choice." That's important because Tester led the investigation that turned up adverse information on the previous nominee for the position, White House doctor Adm. Ronny Jackson. After a rocky couple of news cycles featuring stories about heavy drinking and poor management skills, Jackson withdrew his candidacy for the post.

Isakson said he didn't yet know the position of the White House or the Justice Department on how the Vacancies Act might impact the Wilkie nomination, but said he expected word "in the next few days."

"That's not going to be a problem," Isakson told reporters.

The day before Wilkie's nomination, he signed a $10 billion contract with electronic health record vendor Cerner for a 10-year sole-source deal to replace the agency's homegrown Vista system.

The Vacancies Act not only puts restrictions on the nomination of acting officials, but also gives a path to challenge individual decisions made by an official who is found to be in violation of the act.

Two advocacy groups are already suing the Trump Administration over the pick of Wilkie as acting VA secretary, because the traditional order of succession was bypassed. They argue that the agency's deputy secretary should be in the acting post.

EHR oversight

Separately, the House passed a bill to put some oversight guardrails around VA's electronic health record modernization. The effort, including the $10 billion Cerner contract, is expected to cost $16 billion over a decade.

The Veterans' Electronic Health Record Modernization Oversight Act of 2017 requires VA to keep Congress up to date on acquisition plans, task orders, labor costs and delays in the adoption of the new record. The bill also demands Congress be kept it the loop about privacy breaches and any loss of patient data.

Tester is sponsoring a nearly identical bill in the Senate.

The bill comes as efforts to adopt a Cerner based system at the Department of Defense have stumbled. Recently, an internal oversight report declared the MHS Genesis system, which is being rolled out at multiple sites in the Pacific Northwest, to be "unfit for use."

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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