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VA Secretary Robert Wilkie Says Suicide Prevention Is His Agency's Top 'Clinical' Priority

The South Texas Veterans Health Care System includes the Audie L. Murphy Memorial VA Hospital in San Antonio.
Wendy Rigby/Texas Public Radio
The South Texas Veterans Health Care System includes the Audie L. Murphy Memorial VA Hospital in San Antonio.

From Texas Standard:

In this installment of our "Spotlight on Health" series, we're looking at access to health care – something that can be a problem for many military veterans. 

Robert Wilkie, secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, says wait times at VA clinics have shown "marked improvement" since 2014 when the agency was embroiled in controversy. In one example from that time, a Phoenix VA facility was criticized for having extremely long wait times. 

Wilkie says the challenge now is to find veterans who are entitled to receive VA health care but who don't take advantage of services.

"I think the biggest challenges that we have are the challenges nobody speaks to – reaching those veterans that are not part of our VA," Wilkie says.

Veterans at risk of suicide are one population Wilkie says his agency is focused on right now. They're the agency's "No. 1 clinical priority," he says. That's, in part, because 14 of 20 veterans who take their lives aren't receiving VA care.

One way Wilkie says the agency is trying to find these hidden populations is by traveling to rural areas and Native American lands, asking locals to help the VA find at-risk veterans.

A growing Texas has also meant an increase in the number of veterans living in the state. Wilkie says that by 2025, Texas will have the largest number of veterans of any state and the largest number of active-duty military personnel.

"For our hospitals in Houston and San Antonio and Dallas, and across the state, we need to shift more resources," Wilkie says, "and also beef up our clinics out in the rural areas, particularly in West Texas."

Wilkie says another way his agency is supporting veterans' health care is through the VA Mission Act, which allows veterans to obtain health care in the private sector if it's unavailable through the VA.

"If we can't provide her that service, then what we will give that veteran is the option to go into the private sector to get that service," Wilkie says.

But Wilkie says this doesn't amount to privatization of VA services.

Written by Shelly Brisbin.

Copyright 2019 KUT 90.5

Laura first joined the KUT team in April 2012. She now works for the statewide program Texas Standard as a reporter and producer. Laura came to KUT from the world of television news. She has worn many different hats as an anchor, reporter and producer at TV stations in Austin, Amarillo and Toledo, OH. Laura is a proud graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia, a triathlete and enjoys travel, film and a good beer. She enjoys spending time with her husband and pets.