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Gazette exclusive: Don't privatize the VA, says President Obama

June 5, 2016 Updated: June 6, 2016 at 9:03 am
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President Barack Obama is answers questions Thursday, June 2, 2016, after the 2016 Air Force Academy graduation ceremony at Falcon Stadium on Air Force Academy. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock))

President Barack Obama adamantly opposes privatizing the Department of Veterans Affairs to improve the level of health care veterans receive.

"The notion of dismantling the VA system would be a mistake," Obama told The Gazette on Thursday after he shook the hands of 812 new Air Force officers - all of whom will someday be veterans. He said his administration has made steady progress in modernizing the VA and providing veterans with more timely health care. Reinventing the system would derail that progress.

"If you look at, for example, VA health care, there have been challenges getting people into the system. Once they are in, they are extremely satisfied and the quality of care is very high," Obama said during an interview he granted only to The Gazette in a locker room at Falcon Stadium after the Air Force Academy graduation.

The second-term Democrat has less than a year left in office but still has plans to tackle a number of things in the bureaucratic agency that provides health care and other benefits to the nation's estimated 22 million veterans. "It's a big ocean liner, and on any given day, given how far-flung the agency is, we're still seeing problems crop up that we have to correct.

"I think the main message is that we've still got a lot of work to do. It's an all-hands-on-deck process."

The crisis at the VA has cleft party lines. Everyone was astounded in 2014 when secret wait lists were uncovered at a VA health care system in Arizona amid reports that several veterans had died waiting for health care. A White House investigation found "significant and chronic system failures" and a "corrosive culture" inside the Veterans Health Administration.

The president appointed a new VA secretary in 2014 after Eric Shinseki resigned amid the first breaking wave of scandal.

It has been almost two years since the Senate confirmed Obama's chosen replacement, Robert McDonald, former CEO of Procter & Gamble. "I think Secretary McDonald has done a terrific job," the president said. "Since there's only eight months left in my administration, he's got all the way until then to run through the tape."

McDonald drew ire late last month for likening wait times for access to medical treatment to lines at Disneyland. "When you go to Disney, do they measure the number of hours you wait in line? Or what's important?" McDonald said. "What's important is, what's your satisfaction with the experience?"

That errant comment aside, McDonald has worked to change the culture at the VA and significantly reduce wait times for veterans seeking health care.

U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, said McDonald's comment illustrates how "out of touch he and the Obama administration are.

"He should resign," Lamborn said.

Lamborn does agree with the president, however, that total privatization would be a mistake, but he said he has fought for more options for veterans.

The GOP front-runner to replace Obama, Donald Trump, has said the system is so broken that he would favor opening up care options completely, so a veteran could chose private care providers that accept Medicare instead of going through the VA system.

The VA allows for some private care. Obama signed into law the Veterans Access to Care Act in 2014 that required the VA to contract with private providers when a clinic wasn't within 40 miles of the veteran seeking care or the wait time for care was more than 30 days.

"We've done some work for individuals in special circumstances so that they have access to the health care that's nearest to them," Obama said.

But even some Democrats are skeptical that the VA can meet the needs of the veteran population.

Retired Maj. Gen. Irv Halter, who ran as a Democrat against Lamborn in 2014, said he thinks privatizing the VA should be on the table.

"Obviously, the devil is in the details," he said. "I cannot see how they will ever be able to buy enough staff and keep them on staff for a long enough time and be able to solve the issues they face. I think it's beyond their finances and beyond their organizational capabilities - I just think it's too big."

Lindstrom issues continue

El Paso County is home to five military installations and, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's latest estimates, more than 82,000 veterans.

The county recently celebrated the opening of the VA's 76,000-square-foot Lindstrom Outpatient Clinic, but wait times have continued to be an issue. According to patient access data published by the VA, in April, 14 percent of patients waited more than 30 days for an appointment. Daniel Warvi, spokesman for the VA's Eastern Colorado Health Care System, noted that 74 percent of veterans received an appointment within seven days of their desired date.

Halter, who was a two-star general in the Air Force, said he thinks Obama's legacy on the VA will be a "mixed bag."

"His legacy is shared with a Congress that has proven incapable of taking concerted action," Halter said. "A president is only as good as a Congress will let him be, and I think there's shared responsibility for any shortcomings."

Obama highlighted vast improvements in the agency's ability to quickly process disability claims, a decrease in the number of homeless veterans by almost 30 percent and the work his administration has done outside the VA to assist veterans, including first lady Michelle Obama's Joining Forces program, which works to put the public and private sectors together to help veterans find jobs.

"The work that people like Michelle and (Vice President) Joe Biden have done on Joining Forces to help ensure that veterans are actively sought out by companies, I think, has contributed to a drop in unemployment among veterans that is probably larger than the drop that has taken place in the general population," Obama said.

Obama acknowledged there are problems in the system, some of which can be tackled in his term, but others that will take years.

"There's some things that are going to be 20-month projects. There's some things that are going to be five-year projects," Obama said. "For example, changing IT systems so that processing appointments for health care doesn't take weeks or months; that's the kind of thing that we start now. We get the systems rolling. They may not all be complete by the time we leave, but we will be at a much better place than we were."

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Contact Megan Schrader: 286-0644

Twitter @CapitolSchrader

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