Legislation allowing vets to bypass VA draws ire of VFW

Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., at a House Veterans Affairs Committee meeting in November, 2015.


By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 22, 2017

WASHINGTON —The Veterans of Foreign Wars criticized legislation introduced by a Colorado congressman Tuesday as a distraction from the real work of reforming how veterans receive health care from private medical facilities.

The Veterans Empowerment Act, introduced by Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., would allow veterans to bypass the Department of Veterans Affairs and receive treatment from private-sector doctors with taxpayers money. It mirrors a proposal from the conservative group Concerned Veterans for America, which is part of the Koch brothers’ political network, to create a government-chartered organization to operate a new veterans health insurance system.

“We hope that it has absolutely no chance of becoming law,” said Carlos Fuentes, legislative director for the VFW, a group that boasts roughly 1.3 million members.

The bill comes at a time when Congress is deciding on major changes to the role of private-sector treatment in veterans’ health care.

Members of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs will soon consider another bill, the VA Care in the Community Act, to overhaul the process veterans use to receive private-sector care. That legislation, led by committee chairman Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., has been negotiated by Democrats, Republicans and veterans service organizations for nearly a year and is expected to advance with bipartisan support next week.

The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee is also scheduled to meet next week to advance legislation to reform the VA’s community care programs.

“In terms of how this all plays out, Chairman Roe has the right intentions and is working on a very good bill,” Fuentes said. “Our hope is Congress does not get distracted by these misguided and not well-thought-out proposals and really focus on providing care to veterans through proposals like the one the chairman is working on.”

Lawmakers, veterans organizations and conservative groups, such as Concerned Veterans for America, have been debating for months how to replace the VA Choice program -- the current system veterans use to receive private sector care that’s been described as bureaucratic and confusing.

Multiple Koch brothers subgroups sent letters to Congress advocating for veterans to have complete choice to go into the private sector for care. A Koch representative told the Wall Street Journal earlier this month that they were planning to spend millions of dollars to influence the debate.

On Wednesday, The Hill published an op-ed by Dan Caldwell, executive director for Concerned Veterans for America, that praised Lamborn’s bill as a bold transformation of veterans’ health care.

“We can’t leave the VA medical system in its current state and expect results to improve for our veterans,” Caldwell said. “This is a historic opportunity to finally go beyond the failed status quo at the VA and provide veterans with the best care possible.”

The House VA Care in the Community Act does away with current restrictions on who’s eligible to seek health care in the private sector but maintains the VA as veterans’ primary coordinator of care.

When discussed at a public hearing last month, Democrats and some veterans groups cited concerns about Roe’s proposal taking resources from the VA health care system. Lawmakers on the House veterans committee are waiting for the Congressional Budget Office to issue a cost estimate on the bill before advancing it.

Fuentes said the VFW hasn’t officially supported the legislation, but the group is close.

“Ultimately we’ll get to the point where we’re going to support it,” he said. “We’re still going through some concerns, and they’re very receptive. We feel they have a very veteran-centric approach. This bill, Lamborn’s, is the wrong approach.”

Representatives with the VFW and another major veterans organization, AMVETS, said their groups weren’t consulted by Lamborn or the bill’s cosponsors -- Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., and Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz. – before the Veteran Empowerment Act was introduced.

“Lawmakers know to work with veterans organizations when addressing veterans issues,” AMVETS Director Joe Chenelly wrote Wednesday in a statement. “When they don’t, it is not only unwise, it is insulting to the millions of veterans we represent.”

He also said the bill is “for profit” and would “starve the VA of needed resources.”

In a news release that accompanied the bill’s introduction Tuesday, Lamborn asserted any claims that his system would privatize the VA were inaccurate.

“This bill throws out the idea of acceptable patient wait times and eliminates the requirement of the veteran to ask for VA permission to use civilian medical providers,” Lamborn said in a statement. “It gives veterans full authority to use the existing VA system or not.”

Twitter: @nikkiwentling