WASHINGTON – The union representing 260,000 employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs says veterans’ health care will suffer as the VA pushes more veterans to seek outside treatment and leaves nearly 50,000 vacant positions unfilled.
The American Federation of Government Employees submitted a statement for the record to the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health, which held a hearing today on the department’s fiscal 2020 budget request for the Veterans Health Administration.
The VA is weeks away from implementing the flawed MISSION Act, which will expand the percentage of veterans eligible to receive private-sector care from 8 percent today under the Choice Program to as much as 39 percent. Under proposed standards, veterans will be referred to the private sector if they must wait 20 days or longer or drive at least 30 minutes on average for primary care at their nearest VHA facility, and for specialty care if the wait is 28 days or longer or the average drive time is at least an hour.
There is no guarantee that a veteran who is referred to the private sector will be seen any faster than staying with the VA. In addition, comparable quality of care data for private-sector providers are not available – an egregious double standard that also applies to the stricter competency standards that only VA practitioners must follow.
“Without providing an equal playing field, the VHA is setting itself up to fail and continues the push toward outright privatization,” AFGE said, while calling on lawmakers to demand that the VA withdraw and rewrite the proposed rule.
Upholding the VA’s mission and obligation as the primary provider of veterans’ health care services must remain a priority for Congress and the VA, AFGE said.
“The care that veterans are likely to get on the outside will be less veteran-centric, of lower quality, require longer wait times, and end up with many veterans getting lost in the system because of poor care coordination and lack of accountability when it comes to private providers,” AFGE said.
The nearly 50,000 vacancies represents a steady increase from a year ago – with about 43,000 of these positions located in VHA. In addition to doctors and nurses, there are significant shortages of mental health clinicians and VHA police officers – critical positions that the VA needs to fill to help combat a rise in veteran suicides and to protect both patients and employees.
“Instead of finding ways to justify sending patients outside of the VA to receive their care, the VHA should be laser focused on hiring more full-time professionals who want to make a career out of serving veterans,” AFGE said.