The nation's leading veteran services organizations are rallying behind the Department of Veterans Affairs and its beleaguered health care system, touting the experience of staff, the breadth of services and its holistic approach to care delivery that they argue the private sector cannot match.
The groups are warning of politicians and organizations with agendas that constantly criticize VA health care, refuse to acknowledge reforms and thus advance a camouflaged campaign to dismantle VA health care. They also say it is time to better educate their own members on actions being taken to improve to the health care system that millions of veterans rely upon.
The rally of vet groups is taking shape informally for now. It's no coincidence that it occurs amid a presidential campaign and with the congressionally chartered Commission on Care days away from releasing its report on modernizing veterans' health services over the next 20 years.
In March, seven of the 15 health advisers appointed to the commission backed a "strawman" proposal that would shut down all VA medical centers and outpatient services and have their 6 million patients a year get medical care in the private sector.
The idea of shifting more of veterans' care into the private sector is now a draft bill of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., the Caring for Our Heroes in the 21st Century Act. It would turn the Veterans Health Administration into a federally chartered organization run by a board of directors, which would coordinate with for-profit insurance companies to offer veterans full access to private sector care as an alternative to their VA-provided care.
McMorris Rodgers' "discussion draft" is defended by and likely was drafted by Concerned Veterans of America, a lobby group funded by the billionaire Koch brothers who seek to reduce VA costs and bureaucracy.
The group has influential backers among Republicans, including Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, who has invited Concerned Veterans representatives to testify alongside veteran service organizations.
Miller's committee turned a national spotlight on the 2014 patient wait-list scandal uncovered at scores of VA hospitals and medical centers. Since then, it has demanded that VA officials be held accountable and that executives be jailed or at least fired for their wrongdoing. Meanwhile, VA leaders fumbled with a maze of employee protections and legal challenges.
Combined with some highly critical inspector general reports on VA health administration, the committee effectively branded the VA medical system as wasteful, poorly led and a danger to veterans. The hearings, investigations and negative news articles lent credibility to Concerned Veterans' narrative that the system can't be repaired and so must be replaced.
The group says the McMorris Rodgers bill is the "real reform" the VA needs. It would curb costs for taxpayers, in part, because veterans who choose to use outside care would get only "premium support to help cover" their insurance.
The draft bill prompted Veterans of Foreign Wars to warn its members that "Politicians, pundits and politically motivated organizations are using the national crisis in access to care" at the VA to justify dismantling the health care system, privatizing care and "even proposing that veterans be charged for their service-connected care."
When Paralyzed Veterans of America weighed in, Concerned Veterans accused it of mischaracterizing the bill and said its "D.C. insider-leadership . is willing to lie and mislead veterans about the solutions being proposed to deliver more timely care."
VA Secretary Bob McDonald, in a speech Monday, described progress in cutting wait times for health appointments as it relies more heavily on coordinated care in the private sector. In March, he said, the VA approved 370,000 authorizations for private sector care, doubling the number from a year ago. Just the March authorizations will result in 2 million private sector appointments.
"So the idea that VA can't be fixed, or that we're not fixing it, is just nonsense. We are fixing it. We're just not finished yet," McDonald said.
Tuesday, at a summit on VA health care co-hosted by the AFL-CIO Union Veterans Council, more veterans groups executives touted the strength of their partnership with the VA and its commitment to improving access and quality of care. Again, they were sharply critical of politicians and groups seeking to dismantle VA health care. Citing surveys showing that most veterans are satisfied with VA care and its holistic approach to overall health, the groups agreed they must challenge a false portrait of VA care as painted by recent scandals, partisan politicians and the drumbeat of negative news reports.
Garry Augustine, executive director of Disabled American Veterans, said he talked to an adviser to a presidential candidate "who told me I'm the first veteran he's heard from that had anything good to say about the VA. That made me realize . the perception war is being lost."
Lauren Augustine, legislative associate with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said her advice to presidential candidates would start with a plea to understand "veterans are more than political chew toys. They are more than the two dominating narratives we hear in the media, of heroic [figure] or PTSD injured veteran. We are more than that and we need you . to seek our voice on the nation's stage."
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