Politicians Launch VA Privatization Blitz

Study after study has shown that Veterans Affairs hospitals have consistently outperformed private hospitals, but that doesn’t stop politicians from trying to privatize the VA. 

During the past few weeks, there have been a number of bills introduced in the Senate to privatize various parts of the Department of Veterans Affairs with the ultimate goal of sending most if not all veterans to for-profit private hospitals. They're doing this even though veterans have said over and over again that they prefer to be treated at a VA hospital by VA staff – one-third of whom are veterans. 

There are 49,000 vacancies at the VA, and the priority should be filling these positions. Coming up with temporary fixes will only create more problems for veterans and weaken the VA health care system. Many veterans who have gone to private hospitals have been slapped with enormous bills as the private hospitals bill them directly. Many veterans were also forced to pick up the tab when their private hospital doctors performed treatment that are outside the scope of the authorization.  

Here are some of the bills that would open the floodgate of VA privatization and take away resources from the VA:

1. The Veterans Choice Act of 2017 

Introduced by Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, the bill would vastly increase the use of non-VA care through a massive expansion of the Choice privatization program. Like the Concerned Veterans of America plan that was soundly rejected by the Commission on Care, this bill would take away VA funding and put it in the hands of special interests and for-profit hospital CEOs. It would erode the core mission of the VA health care system and threatens its very survival.   

2. The Veterans Emergency Room Relief Act (S. 1261) 

Without specific guidelines for when veterans can use non-VA urgent care centers, this bill could lead to more fragmented and uncoordinated care, and lead the VA further down the road of privatization.  

AFGE urges the Senate VA Committee to first conduct an inventory of emergency departments and urgent care centers within VA medical centers. A number of VA facilities have closed emergency departments over the years without adequate justification. This study should also examine the feasibility of expanded urgent care centers within VA medical centers. Urgent care provided directly by the VA will be far more veteran-centric than urgent care provided in the private sector.  

3. The Enhancing Veterans Care Act (S. 1266) 

This bill would give the VA authority to contract with non-VA entities to investigate deficiencies at VA medical centers.  

AFGE opposes this bill because the VA has adequate internal capacity to investigate its medical centers alone or in conjunction with other independent governmental entities. Contracting out this responsibility is likely to be used to lay the groundwork for further privatization.   

4. The Veterans Health Administration Reform Act of 2017 (S. 1279) 

This is another attempt to send veterans to for-profit hospitals and line the pockets of private hospital CEOs. We oppose this bill also because the criteria that would be used to determine if a veteran can seek care outside the VA are too vague – e.g. clinical best interest, undue burden, not economical. VA medical centers across the nation continue to be deprived of adequate staff and resources to provide all veterans with the timely, veteran-centric care they have earned and that they prefer. The VA needs to fill 49,000 vacancies, not further depleting resources away from the VA to provide more fragmented, nonspecialized care to veterans.  

5. The Better Workforce for Veterans Act of 2017 (S. 1325) 

There are provisions that AFGE supports and provisions that we have serious concerns about. AFGE concurs that it is critical to fill the 49,000 vacancies at the VA.  But some of the provisions in the underlying bill as currently written fall short of improving hiring, and training efforts within the VA and may have unintended consequences. For example, Section 207 of the bill would allow no less than 500 uniformed health care professionals who are not civil servants and lack the expertise to work at VA medical centers. Using these officers would move the VA one step closer to privatization and undermine VA employees' voice at work as they will be paid more and likely to receive more favorable treatment than bargaining unit employees. 

 AFGE also expressed concern about the adverse impact of new hiring authorities on promotion opportunities for current employees.  

A much better approach 

AFGE supports the Improving Veterans Access to Community Care Act of 2017 introduced by Sen. John Tester of Montana. The union lauded the legislator’s efforts to modernize VA services, lay the foundation for VA-run integrated networks, and keep the VA as the primary provider and coordinator of VA care. These provisions protect the critical resources that the VA must retain in order to keep its promise to veterans. 

“We support new legislation that will allow for the VA to fill the glaring number of open positions at the agency,” said AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. “Veterans want the VA. Veterans need the VA. They have said time and again that they don’t want to be forced out into the private sector with longer wait times, less access to care, and medical professionals ill-equipped to handle their unique needs.”   

“Veterans have overwhelmingly said that they want Congress to work on fixing, not dismantling veterans’ healthcare, and Senator Isakson’s bill does nothing of the sort,” said Cox. “We believe that the Improving Veterans Access to Community Care Act of 2017 is a much better approach – albeit with its own faults – to providing veterans options outside of the VA if they so choose.   

“Ultimately, AFGE will stand with veterans who make up one-third of workers at the VA, and the millions that use it to receive world-class medical treatment. It’s been proven time and again that the VA is the best option for those who have borne the battle, and we’ll never stop fighting to make it the best that it can be,” said Cox. 

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