VA Medical Center in Augusta, Georgia.

VA Medical Center in Augusta, Georgia. U.S. government photo

Don't Dismantle the VA

Veterans care should not become a profit-making enterprise that serves no one better than its financial backers.

After the Department of Veterans Affairs’ waitlist scandal gained national attention two years ago, most Americans’ first instinct was to look for ways to make things better. But some political insiders and corporate funders saw only an opportunity to make billions off the wounds of our veterans.

What followed was an unprecedented smear campaign to discredit the VA and promote private insurance as a viable alternative to the highly specialized, integrated, and cost-effective Veterans Health Administration. Despite objective research showing that the VA is far superior to the chaotic private sector, and that veterans overwhelmingly prefer VA care, profiteers are now closer than ever to succeeding.

Two years ago, the Commission on Care was chartered to find ways to improve veterans’ health care.  But the composition of the commission foretold its recommendations. Comprised of high-level health care industry executives and a Koch brothers-backed pseudo-veterans’ organization, the commission recommended taking the first steps toward destroying the VA using a corporate-style governance board that would conduct a BRAC-like process for shutting VA hospitals.

In early July, weeks ahead of the public release of its final report, the commission leaked an advance copy. In the report, the biased commission advocated dismantling the nation’s most efficient and effective health care provider—the VA – leaving veterans to fend for themselves and giving hospital corporations a lucrative new profit center. Under the Orwellian label of “community care,” the commission recommended veterans leave their existing community-based system, and receive care from higher-cost private providers.

It’s not surprising that privatizers have advocated the dismantlement of the VA system. But it is appalling to break a sacred promise to our nation’s veterans so we can enable corporate health care providers to profit from them.

Today, veterans can walk into any VA hospital and seamlessly access integrated primary and specialty care in addition to financial, education, housing, vocational, and other benefits. Shifting their care to fragmented private providers means more than just dangerous gaps in their treatment, it also means missed opportunities for assistance in getting training and employment, and ending cycles of addiction and homelessness. 

Not only will care that is now integrated and carefully coordinated fall apart, but veterans will face providers ill-equipped to treat them. Veterans suffer from a variety of conditions that are unique to combat, such as traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, and spinal cord injury. The VA is the nation’s leader in both research and practice on these and countless other injuries, and the results speak for themselves.

Between 2000 and 2010, rates of suicide increased by 40 percent among veterans who did not use the VA, but declined 20 percent among those who did. According to a recent RAND Corporation report on the readiness of non-VA civilian mental health professionals to treat veterans, 87 percent were not suited to handle veteran patients. And according to the American Psychological Association, the VA’s performance in treating mental health is 30 percent better than the private sector.

Separating veterans from their integrated care was just the beginning for the commission, which also recommended granting decision-making power over all veterans’ care to an unaccountable board of directors. Not only is this undemocratic, but it is also inefficient because it places a costly layer of bureaucracy between veterans, the VA, and the actual provision of health care and other services. This lack of accountability and transparency in the commission’s plan is an insult to every veteran in this country.

While some on the commission were working with Congressional allies to financially exploit the suffering of veterans, the VA was busy rolling up its sleeves and getting to work. Since 2014, the VA has hired nearly 14,000 additional health care providers, opened up 3.9 million more square feet of clinical space, and offered 20 million additional provider hours of care for veterans. From July 1, 2015, through June 30, 2016, the VA completed more than 57.85 million appointments – a 1.1 million increase from the same time period in 2014-15. They are now completing 97 percent of appointments within the clinically indicated or veteran’s preferred date, and veterans report a 90-percent satisfaction rate with getting appointments when they want.

The VA does wonderful work for millions of veterans, and veterans consistently give their preferred health care system high customer service ratings. As a country, we need to take a stand against those who look at veterans and see a business opportunity. We made a sacred promise to those willing to sacrifice for our freedom. It’s up to us to stay vigilant and keep that promise to this generation and generations of veterans to come.

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