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The Latest on SOVA: Save Our VA From Privatization
By John Ketwig
Guided by three members of his Mar-a-Lago social club, and with abundant funding from conservative billionaires, the Koch brothers (one of whom died last year), ex-President Trump and his band of merry anarchists tried valiantly to strip budget money from the VA (Veterans Administration) and redirect it to the for-profit medical industry. Ultimately, although they never stated it as such, their goal was to abolish the Veterans Healthcare Administration (VHA) as it is a glaring example of the benefits to be derived from a system of universal healthcare. Nothing about these initiatives to undermine the VA is based upon providing better healthcare to veterans. In case you haven't noticed, the for-profit health industry, including the pharmaceutical industry, has been doing very well lately. Still capitalists to the end, they are driven by the "bottom line," or raw, unfeeling, all-American greed. Trump admires that and was determined to help them. During his administration, efforts included a massive effort to break up the unions that provide a significant portion of VA care.
Under Trump, a lobbying group backed by Koch funding, Concerned Veterans of America (CVA), roamed the halls of the House and Senate office buildings in Washington, spreading exaggerations and outright lies about the standards of care the VA provides. Based primarily upon the scheduling scandal at a VA Medical Center in Phoenix and a few other facilities back in 2014, CVA contends that veterans have to wait for too long to get appointments at VHA facilities. The Veterans Health Administration is the branch of the VA that provides healthcare for more than nine million veterans. The CVA solution to this problem is to give veterans "choice." The MISSION Act was a Congressional response to this campaign, allowing vets who have to travel more than 30 minutes or wait more than 20 days for an appointment to seek healthcare outside of the VA system. In many cases, that's reasonable, but it was just a foot in the door for the profiteers who want to dissolve the entire VA system and direct more than $240 billion a year to the for-profit, or private sector.
Yes, we're talking about real money here. The 2021 budget for the VA is $241 billion, and the proposed 2022 budget is $269.9 billion. The Department of Veterans Affairs is the second-largest federal agency by budget, second only to the Department of Defense, the Pentagon. The VHA provides healthcare to vets, but it is also one of America's premier research organizations. The VHA gave us the shingles vaccine, the nicotine patch, and the first implantable cardiac pacemaker. The VHA trains 70 percent of America's medical residents and 40 percent of all other health care professionals.
It is important to point out that all the medical professionals working for the VA are salaried. They do not have large office staff preparing insurance claims or attempting to get an insurance company's pre-approval for a needed medical procedure. While a for-profit general practitioner is expected to spend less than ten minutes with a customer, VA physicians are under no such restrictions. Independent researchers have found that the care provided by the VA is usually superior to that provided by the private sector. I suspect it is also far less expensive. Those office workers see the amount of money coursing through a for-profit medical facility, and they want their share.
Unfortunately, the situation regarding the privatization of the VA has recently become more complex, and more political. Keep in mind, any decisions will be made in Washington, a place where good decisions have been in short supply in recent years. Our lawmakers rarely respond to common sense or proven performances. They respond to lobbyists, and especially the ones with large sums of money to contribute to upcoming election campaigns. A few years back, journalist Greg Palast wrote a book titled The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, and that about sums up the state of American government today. Well, a new lobbying organization has come to Washington, and it is flush with conservative cash. The Veterans 4 America First Institute (V4AF) is actively lobbying for passage of the Guaranteeing Healthcare Access to Personnel Who Served Act (GHAPS ACT, Senate Bill 1863 and, House Bill 4624) which contains several provisions that would send more veterans to the private sector.
The chief spokesman for V4AF is Darin Selnick, a former member of the Trump administration and a zealot when it comes to the privatization of veterans' care. Selnick was previously a spokesman for CVA, but that organization wasn't strident or successful enough, so he has helped to launch V4AF. Selnick's tactics are questionable at best. Like his former boss, he has utter disregard for the truth. His blog claims that veterans can't get timely appointments in the private sector because the VA is dragging its feet making appointments through the network of providers working under the VCCP (Veterans Community Care Program) which has been set up and administered by private insurance companies TriWest and Optum. Selnick issues many misleading memos that tend to misstate both the letter and the meaning of a variety of laws. Propped up by a hefty budget and access to the halls of power in Washington, Mr. Selnick is working feverishly to advance the outsourcing of VA care to the for-profit medical community regardless of the quality of care that sector is capable of delivering, or the threats to veterans' health and well-being that might result.
In a 2017 survey of thousands of VA patients, 72 percent either "strongly agreed" or "somewhat agreed" that they trusted the VA to fulfill America's commitment to veterans. Also in 2017, a Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) survey showed, in the words of their National Commander, "The overwhelming majority of respondents said they want to fix, not dismantle, the VA health care system."
The primary lobbying and information-sharing organization working to fix, fund, and fully staff the VA is the Veterans Healthcare Policy Institute (VHPI). You can visit VHPI's website at www.veteranspolicy.org/our-work. They also send out regular updates that you can sign up for at www.veteranspolicy.org/subscribe. If you are a veteran or know a veteran, this situation is extremely threatening to his or her future health care. Please become familiar with what's going on, and let your Congressperson or Senator know how you feel about it. Ask them to oppose the Guaranteeing Healthcare Access to Personnel Who Served Act (GHAPS ACT, Senate Bill 1863 and House Bill 4624). The VA is far from perfect, but it can and should be fixed. That will require full funding, full staffing, and less interference from organizations that seek to sabotage its operations.
John Ketwig is a lifetime member of VVAW, and the author of two critically-acclaimed books about Vietnam, ?and a hard rain fell and Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter.