Federal Workers Union Warns of Privatized Veterans Health Care

Visitors share valentines with a VA patient last February during National Salute to Veteran Patients Week. (VA photo)
Visitors share valentines with a VA patient last February during National Salute to Veteran Patients Week. (VA photo)

A commission studying health care is just one vote shy of endorsing a privatized Department of Veterans Affairs, a gathering of veterans and VA employees in Tomah, Wis., was told Friday.

The American Federation of Government Employees local that represents workers at the Tomah VA medical center organized the town hall meeting to warn that the "national VA system is under attack."

"Many members of Congress, some presidential candidates and commissions are calling for the reduction and, in some cases, the total elimination of VA health care," said Wisconsin Disabled Veterans of America legislative director Al Labelle.

At issue is a "strawman" document developed by seven members of the 15-member Commission on Care, which was created by Congress in 2014 as part of legislation aimed at reducing waiting times at VA hospitals. Labelle said the document calls for "the total elimination of VA health care no later than 2035."

Commission on Care chairwoman Nancy Schlichting said via the commission's website that the report hasn't been finalized.

"As the term strawman implies, the document was created by a subset of commissioners to describe their personal ideas, which ultimately facilitated and focused public discussion and prompted new proposals," she wrote. "It was not presented as a final report."

The commission is divided equally among members appointed by the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Senate and President Barack Obama. AFGE spokeman Mike Rosenblatt said the final report due June 30 doesn't carry the force of law but has the potential to be influential in the light of recent negative publicity involving VA hospitals. He urged union members to get involved and make sure any privatization proposal is "undermined and sits on the shelf."

Wisconsin U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, has openly called for privatization and blamed recent problems on a public-sector model that lacks accountability.

"They are working within a single-payer, government-run bureaucratic health care system," Johnson said Tuesday in Tomah prior to chairing a hearing that presented a 359-page report detailing reckless prescription drug practices and abusive management practices at the Tomah VA.

Labelle rejected the criticism. He said the VA faces many of the same problems as private medicine but that the media has "focused like a laser beam on the VA" while the private sector is "getting a pass."

He said the vast majority of VA patients are satisfied with their level of care.

"The problem is access, not quality of VA health care," he said.

Rob Hilliard, who receives care at the Tomah VA, agreed. He blasted the private choice program created by the 2014 legislation.

"The choice program has been a debacle from day one," Hilliard said. "Once we get on the outside, we're going to be just a number. The best therapy we get is being around other veterans while we're waiting for appointments. If we lose the VA, that's going to go away." 

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