Union warns of VA privatization ahead of Choice reform debate

Audience members listen during an American Federation of Government Employees-hosted panel discussion on VA health care, October 5, 2017, in Washington, D.C.


By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 5, 2017

WASHINGTON – A coalition of people opposed to the Department of Veterans Affairs providing more private care for veterans described their fears Thursday about an effort by President Donald Trump’s administration to shift more public funds to private entities and undermine VA health care.

Using sometimes fiery language, they illustrated the VA as a model example of health care that was being starved of money and staff to benefit “corporate cronies.”

“They refuse to acknowledge that government can provide health care better than the private sector, and they desperately want their corporate cronies to profit from the illnesses and injuries of our wounded warriors,” said Joe Flynn, treasurer of the American Federation of Government Employees. “I believe that’s immoral. I believe it’s a disgrace, scandal, abomination.”

The American Federation of Government Employees is a union that represents about 230,000 VA workers. The group has protested some changes at the VA under Trump’s administration, including a new law passed with bipartisan support that makes it easier to fire employees, as well as a VA decision to post online how many people it’s fired or disciplined.

At the summit Thursday on Capitol Hill that included some veterans organizations and Democratic congressmen, the union called for additional funding for the VA to increase staff within its health care system. The meeting was planned ahead of a debate in Congress that could significantly alter the VA programs that allow veterans to seek care in the private sector.

The debate is about the Veterans Choice Program, which enables veterans to receive private-sector care if they have to wait more than 30 days for an appointment or live more than 40 miles driving distance from a VA facility. The system has been described by veterans, and VA Secretary David Shulkin, as complex and bureaucratic.

“This takes place at a pivotal time for VA, a time for unprecedented threats, and a time for enormous opportunity,” Flynn said.

But Shulkin has insisted repeatedly since he took the position that his goal was not to privatize the agency.

Legislation to reform the program is expected to be introduced by the end of the month. Shulkin’s proposal, the Coordinated Access and Rewarding Experiences program, or CARE, is also expected to be unveiled soon. He’s described a system that gives veterans and their doctors more flexibility in deciding where and how they should receive care.

Republican lawmakers, veterans organizations and VA officials gathered Tuesday for a closed meeting to discuss a House proposal before legislation is rolled out.

“All of the [veterans service organizations] who spoke up about the draft bill felt the draft was a good start,” said Roscoe Butler, who is with the American Legion. “It would go a long way in meeting the needs of veterans.”

The American Legion and other major veterans organizations have been weary of veterans services sliding too far into the private sector at the expense of VA health care.

The Legion commissioned a report in September by Phillip Longman, a senior fellow at the Washington think-tank New America Foundation, and author Suzanne Gordon. The report states there is no evidence that privatizing the VA or shifting more into the private sector would improve veterans’ quality of care.

The report was passed out at Thursday’s event, and Suzanne Gordon – also present Thursday – sharply criticized the VA Choice Program as a guise for privatization.

“Privatization means the slow and steady starvation of the public-sector system of resources,” she said.

Some Democrats have described an expansion of private-sector care at the VA as a step toward privatization.

Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., said Thursday that during debate on Choice reform, she would push for “at least equal” investment between a new Choice program and infrastructure, modernization and hiring at the VA.

According to VA data, the agency had more than 49,000 vacancies as of spring, and more than 45,000 of them were in the health care system.

The American Federation of Government Employees is supporting two bills, one introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to appropriate $5 billion for the VA to hire medical professionals, and another to require the VA to regularly report the number of vacancies at the agency and steps it’s taking to fill them.

But many insiders agree private-sector care will remain part of the VA health system. Debate this fall is expected to focus on how to balance that private-sector care with investment in the VA.

“A balance must be struck between private and VA care,” said Adrian Atizado, who is with the veterans organization Disabled American Veterans. “We all have a responsibility to make sure the VA remains a steady presence in our health care landscape.”

Twitter: @nikkiwentling

Author Suzanne Gordon, AFGE Council of Prison Locals President Eric Young, American Federation of Government Employees Local 3930 President and health care provider Kathleen Pachomski listen during an AFGE-hosted panel discussion on VA health care, October 5, 2017, in Washington, D.C.