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American Legion Wants to Grill Shulkin on VA Privatization

Vice President Mike Pence and Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn. listen as Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin speaks during his swearing in ceremony in Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex, Feb. 14, 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Vice President Mike Pence and Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn. listen as Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin speaks during his swearing in ceremony in Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex, Feb. 14, 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

As a new administration and Congress begin work, the nation’s largest veterans service organization is working to ensure the Department of Veterans Affairs doesn’t lose any of its centralized authority or federal funding to care for vets.

American Legion National Commander Charles Schmidt said he plans to meet with newly confirmed VA Secretary David Shulkin Thursday to discuss his stated commitment to improving the VA, rather than pursuing privatization of veterans’ care.

“He said he opposes privatization and that it would not happen under his watch,” Schmidt said at a press conference at the National Press Club Thursday. “The American Legion has so far been impressed with him. But we do plan to hold his feet to the fire and help him deliver on those promises.”

The future of VA care is in play as lawmakers consider the future of the $10 billion Veterans Choice Program, set to expire this year. The program was designed to cover private healthcare for veterans living in remote areas without a VA facility within 40 miles, and was expected to ease backlogs and wait times. But the program, rolled out hurriedly, has reportedly done little to take strain off VA facilities and has frustrated many veteran users.

Louis Celli, National Director of Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation at The American Legion, said the organization opposed an expansion of the Choice program, and wanted to ensure that its funding was transferred back to the VA.

“Now that the Choice Program is scheduled to come to an end, we most importantly want to make sure that the funds that were dedicated to that program are absorbed by the VA,” he said. “So we’re in favor of extending it long enough to make sure those funds get absorbed by VA.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., introduced a bill in January that would remove the automatic expiration date of the Choice Program.

While Schmidt acknowledged that there continue to be long VA wait times and news stories of veterans thwarted from receiving care due to bureaucracy and backlogs, he maintained the American Legion’s position that the VA was a system worth fixing.

“We also want to remove any temptation to discontinue the many VA services that have been outsourced to the private sector,” he said. “Most VA hospitals provide outstanding care, care that generally does not produce Page One headlines or make the nightly news.”

An official with then-President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team told reporters in December that Trump was considering a move to push the VA further toward privatization, despite the objections of many veterans’ groups, including the American Legion. But Celli said full privatization was so unrealistic that it wasn’t a primary concern for the Legion.

“The term ‘privatization’ has become somewhat of a red herring in our community,” he said. “The truth is the American Legion isn’t concerned that the VA will be completely privatized; that’s not possible. It’s not affordable; it’s not feasible. What we are concerned with is ... the restriction of ability for veterans to access the VA. If you start marginalizing veterans and start closing priority groups, your usage will automatically go down, and then an argument will be able to be made to start taking funds away from VA. That’s our concern.”

Of Trump, who has yet to publicly address any veterans issues or policies since taking office, Schmidt said he was optimistic that a strong working relationship would develop.

--Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck

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