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OPINION

Privatizing the VA doesn’t improve patient care

By ALMA LEE | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: September 23, 2020

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The Department of Veterans Affairs has the largest integrated health care system in the United States. The Trump administration has designs to destroy it — right when we need a strong health system for veterans more than ever.

How? By putting it under private control. That was made blatantly clear in a recent op-ed by VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, in which he boasted, “President [Donald] Trump gave veterans the real, permanent choice of using private health care providers.”

The Trump administration’s privatization push at the VA is not about choice. It’s about dodging accountability. And that includes attacking the union that represents VA workers, the American Federation of Government Employees’ National Veterans Affairs Council (AFGE NVAC), which represents over 270,000 VA employees. The union and the VA have been engaged in a yearslong battle for a new collective bargaining agreement, which would be the largest public-sector union contract in the United States.

Workers are seeking a contract that provides them with hazard pay, safe working conditions, adequate staffing levels, and the space and equipment they need to ensure veterans receive the best care possible. If the VA were to honor these requests, veterans could avoid seeking the assistance of urgent and walk-in care clinics, which weren’t built on the personal connection and values VA employees have when it comes to serving our nation’s heroes.

Yet the VA has consistently presented insufficient proposals for the new agreement in an effort to scuttle the negotiations and impose a new contract on workers without negotiating in good faith.

The importance of a fair contract is critical, especially in the middle of a public health emergency that has seen over 2,300 VA patients die from COVID-19 and 50,000 test positive at VA facilities. However, COVID-19 is only one part of the union’s fight for a fair contract — dignity, respect, and a safe workplace for all VA employees and the veterans they care for also are paramount.

Recently, the union conducted a nationwide survey about systemic racism at the VA and 78% of employees surveyed reported that racism is a moderate to serious problem at the VA, while another 76% said they had experienced racially charged actions while working at the VA. Fifty-five percent of those surveyed reported that they had also witnessed racial discrimination against veterans while on the job. The survey results mark the latest evidence of widespread racism and racial bias going unchecked at the VA under Wilkie’s tenure. Wilkie was appointed by Trump amid controversy over Wilkie’s longtime membership in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and he has spoken glowingly about Confederate President Jefferson Davis, once referring to him as a “martyr to ‘The Lost Cause’ ” and an “exceptional man in an exceptional age.”

As a response to the survey data, I penned a letter to Wilkie calling on him to act to promote an inclusive workplace at the VA, where over 40% of workers identify as people of color. Additionally, the union’s survey caught the attention of Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, who requested that the Government Accountability Office conduct an investigation into the culture, policies and practices of the VA to determine the extent to which systemic racism has affected the agency.

This month, a decision on the VA workers’ contract is slated to be announced by the Federal Services Impasse Panel, whose members were appointed by the White House but not confirmed by the Senate.

VA employees have had their rights trampled on for far too long — it’s time for a fair and legal contract. If Wilkie and the Trump administration continue to put profits and privatization ahead of improving the country’s largest public health care system, employees and the veterans they care for will continue to bear the cost.

Alma Lee is president of the AFGE National Veterans Affairs Council.