The VA's Uncertain Future

On September 7, the House Committee on Veterans Affairs held a hearing on the controversial "Commission on Care" recommendations to dismantle the VA health care system.  

The Commission on Care was a panel of political appointees who were brought together to recommend improvements for the VA. But the Commission's true goal quickly became apparent as it barely tried to hide its intentions. Their initial "Strawman Report" proposal called for completely dismantling the VA health care system under a BRAC-type process. It would supplant care traditionally provided by VA hospitals by providing veterans with a voucher, then tossing veterans into the for-profit health care system. The Strawman report recommended closing 160+ VA medical centers, 1,000+ VA community health clinics.

In AFGE's statement for the record that was provided to the Committee for this hearing, AFGE stated: 

"Although the Commission did not formally adopt the controversial 'strawman' proposal, the impact would be very similar. Both would dismantle our veterans' only specialized integrated health care system and incur unsustainable costs that will inevitably lead to lower quality care and fewer health care services for fewer veterans.

"Both would also destroy veterans' true source of 'community care': care provided within the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) that is closely coordinated with VA vet centers and Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) benefits and employment services. The Commission's description of non-VA care as 'community care' is a misnomer. Veterans strongly prefer to receive their care from the VA over the private sector according the Vet Voice Foundation poll and other recent polls."

A Not-So-Subtle Agenda 

The hearing came just days after the Committee's chairman, Rep. Jeff Miller, alleged that AFGE stood in the way of reform. Miller is the same lawmaker who has repeatedly tried to strip VA employees' workplace rights in the name of 'accountability.' Miller penned a similarly impulsive, fiery rebuttal after a Washington Monthly article exposed how the "Commission on Care" seemed to be rigged toward dismantling the VA.  

In an Op-Ed that ran in The Hill this week, AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr said that lawmakers should thank, rather than attack, VA employees and AFGE members.  

"Instead of pointing fingers at the people who care for our veterans the most, we should be empowering them," wrote Cox. "These are the men and women who risked their careers to do the right thing for veterans." 

"We can't allow someone's self-interested privatization agenda to deprive veterans of the oversight they deserve, and their caregivers the rights that keep the system honest," he added.  

Cox cited the whistleblowing of Dr. Michelle Washington, a Wilmington Veterans Affairs Medical Center psychologist. In 2011, Washington noticed that wait times at her facility were not matching up with the appointments on the books. She spoke up and testified before the Senate.  

Then, she was retaliated against by VA managers.  

"She had some of her duties as a psychologist removed, and for the first time, received negative performance evaluations," Cox said in his Op-Ed. "Upset managers wanted to exact revenge; and if not for the protection offered to her by her union, AFGE, Washington could have continued to face hostile working conditions, or even lose her job." 

Three years later, the wait list crisis at the VA became front page news. Ever since, lawmakers like Miller have used it as a jackhammer to drive his privatization agenda. That agenda was largely constructed by the Koch Brothers' fake veterans group "The Concerned Veterans of America" that had a seat on the Commission on Care. The Koch Brothers' greedy health care CEO buddies would reap tremendous financial benefits from veterans' war wounds, and they'll stop at nothing to get a piece of the action.  

What's Next for the VA? 

The VA has been outperforming the private sector for years. But it still has a lot of work left to do to ensure veterans get the care they need and employees are shown the dignity and respect they deserve. But the VA is improving every day.  

Since 2014, the VA has hired nearly 14,000 healthcare providers, opened 3.9 million square feet of clinical space and offered 20 million additional provider hours of care for veterans. Veterans now report 90% satisfaction with getting timely appointments. And that's just a few of the success stories at the VA (see more below). 

The Joint Commission, a highly respected independent organization, made surprise inspections of nearly 200 VA facilities across the country. Their report concluded what we've long known:  Veterans Affairs hospitals are superior to private-sector hospitals in providing care to our wounded warriors.  

And veterans agree. In a 2015 poll by the VetVoice Foundation, 64% of all veterans prefer the VA over for-profit providers. Those who return from war don’t just find quality health care at the VA — they find a community.  

The big question that remains is whether lawmakers will acknowledge that the VA has long been the best healthcare system in the world. Or, will they continue down the path of selling veterans off to the for-profit health care industry?  

We believe that the promise we made to veterans for their sacrifice is too sacred to break. And, we'll be watching what lawmakers cook up next.  

VA Accomplishments 

Here’s a few examples why the VA is the best health care system in the world:   

  • VHA researchers have been recognized with three Nobel prizes and seven Lasker awards.  
  • In 2015 the VA’s Consolidated Mail Outpatient Pharmacy received J.D. Power’s highest customer satisfaction score for the sixth year in a row.  
  • Using VetLink, the VA’s kiosk-based software that collects real-time customer satisfaction information, 90% of respondents were either “completely satisfied” or “satisfied” with getting an appointment when they wanted.  
  • The VA pioneered the first liver transplant, invented the cardiac pacemaker, developed the nicotine patch, found that a daily dose of aspirin reduces heart attack deaths, engineered bionic ankle-foot prosthesis, and showed the effectiveness of vaccinating against shingles.  
  • 65% of all doctors practicing in the U.S. received all or part of their residency training in VA health care facilities.  
  • The VA treats more than 26,000 people with spinal cord injuries and related disorders each year. It is the largest health care system in the world providing spinal cord care.  
  • A January 2016 estimate of unsheltered homeless found there were slightly more than 13,000 unsheltered veterans living on the streets, a 56 percent decrease from 2010.  
  • According to the American Psychological Association, mental health care treatment at the VA "was superior to that of the private sector by more than 30 percent." 
  • According to the Congressional Budget Office, the VA offers healthcare that is 20% less expensive than Medicare – which as noted by the CBO, is itself lower than typical insurance rates.  
  • According to independent research by RAND Corporations 2015 evaluation and 2016 summary, as well as according to a review of 60 independent scientific publications, the VA outperforms non-VA health care in adherence to recommended preventative care guidelines, treatment guidelines, and outpatient processes and outcomes.

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