WASHINGTON – While veterans continue to receive world-class health care from the Veterans Health Administration, and wait times continue to outperform the private, for-profit sector, workers at the Department of Veterans Affairs were stunned to learn this week of a new plan to outsource care and funding from the already short-staffed and underfunded agency.
Announced Tuesday and unveiled Wednesday, the plan creates new access standards for VA health care and would harm veterans through inferior and delayed treatments as the integrated and specialized care offered by the VA is dismantled and replaced by private care that is demonstrably unable to deal with veterans’ unique needs.
The new standards are expected to take effect in June 2019 and follow the troubling growth in vacancies at the VA, which has now ballooned to more than 46,000 – with more than 70 percent of the growth at the Veterans Health Administration, 47 percent of which are in the medical and dental field. Workers, medical experts, and members of Congress have raised concerns that the existing funding and staffing issues will be exacerbated by funneling more money into the private, for-profit sector, and questioned the lack of transparency around the development and implementation of access for veterans.
“The VA is the single-best health care system in this country and is overwhelmingly preferred by the veterans who use it,” said American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox Sr. “But instead of investing in, and improving the VA, we’re now seeing a massive shift from the department that will dismantle the VA as we know it. And it shouldn’t have to be said, but destroying veterans’ health care is not ‘revolutionary.’”
“The VA already outperforms the private sector in nearly every single measure. And that’s with more than 46,000 vacancies and insufficient funding plaguing the department for the last decade,” said Cox. Adding, “We must ensure the VA is operating at full capacity before even contemplating sending out patients and desperately-needed funding to the private, for-profit sector.”
Cox, who served as a registered nurse at the VA for more than 20 years, noted the standards released this week were developed in total secrecy with no input from labor, Veterans Service Organizations, provider groups, or other key stakeholders. Additionally, they were developed using consultant modeling without any explanation as to why they picked the most extreme privatization mode.
“In Secretary Wilkie’s own words, the VA is ‘seeing more patients than ever before, more quickly than ever before, and veterans are more satisfied with their care than they have been previously.’ So why not build on that instead of crippling the agency financially?” asked AFGE National Veterans Affairs Council President Alma Lee, who represents 250,000 workers at the VA. “We know there is less access to care in the private sector, and that care is inferior to the specialized treatments offered at the VA. So why the rush to push veterans out the door to wait in line at private providers ill-equipped for veterans’ unique needs? We must fill these vacancies before we do anything else.”
AFGE, which represents nearly 70 percent of the VA workforce, has been a leading voice and expert in the fight to protect veterans’ health care from wholesale privatization for years. The union, citing its firsthand knowledge of the VA as well as its own leading medical experts, highlighted several distressing portions of Sec. Wilkie’s new plan. Those include:
“We’ve already seen how thousands upon thousands of veterans are hurt when they’re forced out into the private sector,” said Lee. “When a veteran is pushed to for-profit doctors who aren’t prepared to treat them, they have to wait for weeks to be seen, and then are sent to the back of the line at the VA when they return to get the treatments they desperately need.”
“It’s disheartening when we work with a veteran utilizing CHOICE knowing that they’re going to spend a lot of time and money to just come back to a VA Medical Center and receive the treatment they were going to in the first place. And it’s especially crushing when you know it all could have been avoided if we just had the funding and staffing we’ve needed for years,” Lee added.
AFGE also notes that this overhaul to the VA comes before next year’s budget is even released; highlighting how MISSION Act related cost increases will come at the expense of keeping VA Medical Centers adequately staffed and at full service. The union worries that to cover the shortfall, the VA will need to pillage its own internal funding while still dealing with 41,372 vacancies at the VHA – with 24,076 in the medical and dental field alone – and 46,522 in the entire department.
“I can tell you firsthand as a registered nurse and a veteran that the VA is the best health care provider our country has to offer,” said AFGE Local 3930 President Kathleen Pachomski. “Imagine what we could do with a full complement of staffing when we already beat the private sector in care and access to it with 41,000 vacancies and counting.”
AFGE requested a formal meeting with VA Secretary Robert Wilkie after he began his tenure, but he has not responded to the union’s request to build a better working relationship with the workforce that diligently cares for our nation’s veterans.