The Conservative Plan to Fix the VA Has Vets Hopping Mad

Why is a commission charged with fixing the problems hoping to close down its hospitals?

Veterans commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War on March 29 in West Palm Beach, Florida.Bruce R. Bennett/Zuma

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Some members of the commission established by Congress to evaluate the Department of Veterans Health Administration have proposed drastically reducing the size of the VHA by closing its health facilities and transferring the care of the nation’s millions of military veterans to the private sector. But in a letter sent to the chair of the Commission on Care, leaders of eight of the country’s most prominent veterans’ advocacy organizations blasted the proposal.

“We are greatly alarmed by the content of [the proposal] that was developed and drafted outside the open Commission process by seven of the Commission’s fifteen members—without the input or even knowledge of the other Commissioners,” they wrote in a letter signed by senior leaders of the Disabled American Veterans, the American Legion, the Military Order of the Purple Heart, the Vietnam Veterans of America, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Paralyzed Veterans of America, AMVETS, and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

The plan—known as the “Strawman Document“—was floated in March by seven members of the 15-member Commission on Care, an oversight group that was established by Congress in 2014 in the wake of the national scandal surrounding the lengthy wait times for healthcare at VA facilities. The commission is charged with evaluating veterans’ access to health care and with offering proposals for how the Veterans Health Administration should be organized over the next 20 years.

The “Strawman” report, which echoes VA privatization efforts that have been backed by the Koch brothers, says “bold transformation” is needed for the VA to address the needs of its enrolled veterans, and that the system is “seriously broken” with “no efficient path to repair it.” The plan calls for closing many “obsolete” VA facilities and moving toward a model where veterans can seek taxpayer-funded care at private health care facilities. A process similar to the Base Realignment and Closure system—used by the military since the end of the Cold War to decide which bases to close—would be used to evaluate which VA medical facilities would close. Under the plan, there would be no new facilities or major renovations of the existing VA facilities.

The plan also called for private doctors to be reimbursed at 5 to 10 percent higher than the Medicare rate, so they would have a greater incentive to participate.

The authors wrote that eventually the VA would become a broad-based payer system, “though it will continue to pay for the veteran care provided by the community system.”

Those who opposed the plan agree the VA needs to be improved, but they argue that essentially privatizing it would force veterans to search for care at private facilities that might not be trained or equipped to serve veterans suffering from the long-range effects of combat, such as spinal cord injuries “and the Polytrauma System of Care.” The authors add that the proposal ignores recent research, some commissioned by Congress itself, that found that VA care is often better than care in the private sector.

Louis Celli, the national director of veterans affairs and rehabilitation for the American Legion, told the Arizona Republic that he was “angered and insulted” by the “strawman” plan, and that the commission is now “absolutely divided” between those who want to privatize VA care and those who don’t. 

The plan lines up with ideas from Concerned Veterans for America, a group that’s backed by the Koch brothers. The group has called for more choice for veterans seeking health care and for the VA and its health functions to be partly privatized. Suzanne Gordon, a health care writer who has covered the VA, notes in her personal blog and in the American Prospect that the supporters and drafters of the “strawman” proposal include conservatives and several hospital executives “who stand to benefit financially from [VA medical] privatization.”

Dan Caldwell, a spokesman for the Koch-backed group, told the Arizona Republic that the “Strawman” proposal has been “completely distorted by opponents,” and that there is no call to abolish the VA health care system. “We are not proposing to abolish the [VA health care system] or to end government funding of veterans’ health care,” Caldwell said.

According to the Arizona Republic, the commission will have two public meetings before issuing a report on its proposal June 30. The report was due in February, but the commission asked for and received an extension.

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