Veterans’ healthcare in the cross-hairs

Privatization of the VA bad news for veterans and federal workers

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Politicians of both major parties routinely pledge to “support the troops” and “honor veterans.” They show up on Memorial Day to be photographed honoring the military dead. But they consistently fail to deliver on promises to provide care to the country’s 22 million veterans and their families. Instead, a bipartisan Congress has been dismantling veterans’ programs and forcing vets into for-profit health care for years.

Endless wars, budget cuts. The longest U.S. war, in Afghanistan, the occupation of Iraq, and deployments around the globe have multiplied the number of catastrophically injured vets. Longer tours and the horrors they have seen leave soldiers with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Their symptoms range from flashbacks to guilt, nightmares or rages that do not go away. Between 2001 and 2014, the veteran population decreased by five million, yet the actual number of disabled vets using Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) healthcare rose from 3.8 to 6 million. Veterans who previously used their own medical insurance began to rely on the VA as employers cut back on benefits.

This influx sharply strained the VA medical system, and attrition caused by Obama-era pay and benefit cuts in 2011 made it worse. In 2014, reports of veterans dying while waiting for appointments in Phoenix caused a scandal and justifiable outrage. Congress responded by passing what is known as the Veterans Choice Act.

Piecemeal privatization. The 2014 act set up a pilot program for vets unable to get a timely appointment to seek treatment at other health clinics using their private health insurance, if they had it, with the VA paying anything left over. This was the “choice” referred to in the bill’s name.

In reality, it forced veterans, including VA employees, to “choose” to go elsewhere due to the VA’s understaffing. The act called for removing bad managers and hiring more doctors and nurses. Instead, the department targeted the already stretched workforce with arbitrary dismissals, job downgrades and overall speedup. The union suddenly had to file grievances over dismissal notices in seven days, down from 30 under previous rules. Progressive discipline was gone and replaced with “one strike and you’re out.”

To make matters worse, Pres. Trump imposed a hiring freeze in January 2017. The Choice Act was reauthorized unanimously by both houses in 2017.

Beverly Anderson, president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), Local 3197, told this writer, “Workers won’t stay under these conditions. Our pay is way below the private sector and the staffing shortage is dangerous to workers and patients.” She continued that although the VA maintains that it provides all necessary healthcare options for women, she, as a disabled vet and VA employee, was forced to go to a private clinic for a mammogram.

The VA is now severely understaffed at all levels. In May 2017, former VA Secretary David Shulkin announced that there were 49,000 vacancies nationally. Since then AFGE has collaborated with veterans’ groups to protest in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

Anderson described how in Seattle, the combination of resignations, terminations and refusal to hire replacements had swollen vacancies to 748 by 2018. A local rally was organized by AFGE in March to protest understaffing and the Choice program.

In April, Pres. Trump lifted the national hiring freeze, but announced that 4,000 jobs will not be filled. So far, 75 people have been hired in Seattle.

Private, substandard care. The current federal budget increased the VA appropriation. But this money is not earmarked for the growing needs of disabled vets desperate for counseling, temporary shelter, or hospital care. Instead, much of the increase will go to pay for private, profit-making care.

Ron Bryant, commander of the West Seattle Chapter of the Disabled American Veterans, told this reporter that the Choice program will drain the system of money, line the pockets of private providers and not deliver the complete care veterans need. He said, “There is no choice in Choice, because vets have no choice but to use it if they can’t get appointments at the VA — which is being hit with attrition, cutting and nickel-and-diming until it is totally understaffed.” He maintains that the Seattle hospital is one of the best in the country, with world-class medical care, but is being allowed to die.

“Vets now need more than just a doctor. They are mentally and physically damaged and need intense care. They have problems that need counselors, not anti-depressants. They can’t hold jobs, so they become homeless.” Vets are eleven percent of the population, but make up a quarter of the homeless. The fastest rising segment of homeless veterans is women, many of them victims of sexual assault and trauma while in the military.

Bryant, who volunteers most days helping vets file paperwork to collect the benefits they need, provides a service that the VA itself doesn’t. In fact, a 2015 Disabled Veterans survey on “the attitudes of vets” revealed that only 44 percent believed they received the benefits they were promised and only 18 percent believed disabled vets received promised benefits.

The attack on veterans’ healthcare and benefits affects millions of working families’ healthcare, housing and jobs. Mobilization of federal workers, veterans groups, other unions and the public will be needed to push back.

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Also see: Labor Weather Report
Also see: Labor Notes conference 2018
Also see: California unions strike in solidarity


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