WASHINGTON – On Tuesday the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs held a hearing to address proposed legislation aimed at improving veterans’ access to care. With 49,000 vacancies at VA hospitals and clinics nationwide and a growing veteran population, AFGE cautioned lawmakers that some of the proposals under consideration may lead to the dismantling of the VA healthcare system and undermine the VA’s efforts to hire desperately needed staff.
The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 250,000 working people at the VA, submitted written testimony to the hearing, “Pending Health Care Legislation,” that addresses the positive and negative bills that will alter the future of the VA.
AFGE’s comments focused on several bills that will increase the hiring and access to care for veterans at the only healthcare system tailored to their unique needs. In addition, the union’s statement raised concerns about proposals that would vastly expand the use of non-VA care to such an extreme as to threaten the world-class healthcare system’s long-term survival.
In its comments on S. 1325, the Better Workforce for Veterans Act from Senators Jon Tester and Jerry Moran from Montana and Kansas respectively, AFGE supported provisions aimed at improvement of management and human resources practices. But, the union expressed concern about the adverse impact of new hiring authorities on promotion opportunities for current employees. AFGE also questioned a bill provision to use expensive Public Health Service medical officers who lack the expertise and stability of VA’s own workforce, and another that tries to fix VA police recruitment and retention problems without affording them much needed law enforcement officer status.
“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,” he added.
In their testimony, AFGE also highlighted several proposals for reforming current programs that provide non-VA care. “AFGE strongly opposes the Veterans Choice Act of 2017,” from Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, AFGE said in its testimony. Adding, “This bill would vastly increase the use of non-VA care through a massive expansion of the Choice Program. Like the Concerned Veterans of America plan that was soundly rejected by the Commission on Care, this bill would erode the critical core of the VA health care system and put such an enormous financial strain on it threatens its very survival.”
In contrast, AFGE praised the Improving Veterans Access to Community Care Act of 2017 from Sen. Tester. 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. AFGE said these provisions protect “the critical resources that the VA must retain in order to keep its promise to veterans”
“Veterans have overwhelmingly said that they want Congress to work on fixing, not dismantling veterans’ healthcare, and Sen. 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 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.