BATTLE CREEK, Mich. — The head of U.S. Veteran Affairs made a stop in Battle Creek on his tour of facilities around Michigan this week.
On Tuesday, Secretary Robert Wilkie was at the VA Hospital in Battle Creek to tour one of their mental health facilities. In the midst of a global pandemic, the secretary said he was proud of his department’s response and care for the nation’s veterans.
“Of the 24,000 veterans who’ve been affected, almost 19,000 have fully recovered now,” said Secretary Wilkie. “So we were ready, we’ve war-gamed these things out.”
Roughly 4,500 veterans are still infected, and about 800 are hospitalized in VA hospitals nationwide. The department has 400,000 beds total.
Secretary Wilkie says preparing for the unexpected – things like a pandemic or natural disaster that would affect large numbers of vets – is their so-called “Fourth Mission” in addition to providing healthcare, benefits and caring for cemeteries.
Because the VA isn’t beholden to normal government pay scales, they can pay employees more competitively than other departments would be able to, and Secretary Wilkie says they have been.
“So we are stocking up on equipment, we are stocking up on people, we’ve hired 22,000 employees just in the last 7-and-a-half to 8 weeks,” he said. “Our facilities are getting bigger, we’re bringing in more people, we offer more services. Last year we 59.9 million appointments at the VA. That’s an all-time high.”
Secretary Wilkie says it’s how they’re able to obtain and retain good doctors, nurses and healthcare staff and thrive while other healthcare facilities are closing.
In 2014 the VA faced backlash after it was discovered that long wait times were linked to veteran deaths. Secretary Wilkie says with an all-time department high budget of nearly $240 billion recently clearing a House panel, they’re trying to speed up and expand.
“People think of Michigan and they think of Detroit,” he said. “This is a rural state and we have to increase our footprint to make sure that rural veterans are taken care of.”
Tuesday, the Secretary also signed and placed a teal stone in the Battle Creek facility’s rock garden for sexual abuse survivors. He also responded to a question about Pvt. 1st Class Vanessa Guillen. The remains of the 20-year-old were recently found near the Fort Hood Army Base she went missing from, after her family says she told them she was sexually assaulted by another member of the military. Investigators says she was murdered.
“Certainly ‘no tolerance,’” said Secretary Wilkie of the department’s stance on sexual assault. “And the message that I have here is no more silence, and in expression there’s hope.”
Wilkie has served as secretary of the department for just under two years.