Robert Wilkie was appointed as the Secretary of U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs last July. Wilkie grew up at Fort Bragg in a military family and still serves as an officer in the Air Force Reserve. As secretary of the cabinet level department, he’s responsible for ensuring the VA serves veterans’ physical, mental, and emotional needs to the best of its ability.
It’s also a department that has seen its share of controversy over the years, including here in Wisconsin at the Tomah VA Medical Center. That was the center which was embroiled in scandal a few years ago involving the overprescription of opioid narcotics. But Wilkie says it was an opportunity to change.
"The most important lesson from Tomah was that it forced on VA a cultural change," he explains.
The Department of Veterans Affairs reanalyzed how it was prescribing pain medication and explored alternative therapies like tai chi and yoga. They did studies into the efficacy of opioids, compared to aspirin and ibuprofen.
Since then, Wilkie says, "We've reduced the rate of prescriptions for opioids for veterans by 51 percent and we are the leaders in alternative therapies. So that is what that terrible thing led the entire department to do."
Wisconsin is also at the cutting edge of research into spinal cord injuries, such as those sustained in combat. Milwaukee's Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center is considered a hub of spinal cord research, treating injuries that were once usually fatal.
There is no shortage of problems facing U.S. veterans. Suicide, homelessness, and addiction are all disproportionately high among veterans when compared to the civilian population. Wilkie says these issues are frequently interconnected and part of complex solutions that must address several problems at once.
"We're talking about a continuum of effect. Opioid abuse, homelessness - suicide is on that continuum - and we just can't treat one of those things in isolation," he says.
Wilkie continues, "A few weeks ago, the president launched a nation-wide effort to tackle suicide, and that is with me in the lead as the representative of this department, but it also brings in the Department of Defense, the National Institute of Health, HHS [U.S. Department of Health and Human Services]. So it is not simply a whole of government effort but a whole of nation effort."