On Thursday October 5th,the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) the union that represents federal employees, held a briefing on the threat to privatize the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Veterans, VHA caregivers, and policy analysts warned Congressional staff and the media on the cost to veterans if more and more VHA care was outsourced to the private sector.
Representatives Julia Brownley (D, CA-26), Mark Takano (D. CA-41) and Anthony Brown (D MD-04) spoke before the panel began, and pledged their support for the VHA and opposition to privatization. Senator Bernie Sanders was supposed to appear but was forced to cancel because of a conflict.
Joe Flynn, AFGE’s Treasurer, introduced the panel and Jackie Maffucci, Research Director Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, was its moderator. The first speaker was clinical psychologist Thomas Kirchberg, representing the Association of VA Psychologist Leaders (AVAPL). Kirchberg warned of current efforts to outsource the Compensation and Pension (Comp & Pen) exams that the VHA conducts when veterans make claims for eligibility for VA services, compensation for service connected problems, and pensions.
VA psychologists and medical staff– experts who understand the complex conditions and problems from which veterans suffer – have traditionally conducted these exams. Now, in the name of easing the backlog of claims at the chronically underfunded and understaffed VHA, they are being farmed out to for- profit firms who have little expertise in veterans’ health problems and may not conduct comprehensive examinations of veterans.
In an impassioned plea, Kirchberg explained that, “When I sit with a Veteran who has never had the opportunity to tell his or her story he or she may break down and begin weeping, lost in the past, embarrassed, and wanting to get up and leave.”
His own voice breaking as he spoke, he said, “I’m able to sit with them and help them so they can regain composure and then in an unhurried way either walk them to a clinic for a warm handoff to a mental health provider or talk with them knowledgeably about a referral. These comp and pen exams are often the first face of the VA for Veterans. The compensation and pension exam should not be a bureaucratic checklist. It’s a critical encounter requiring deep knowledge and compassion.”
Adrian Atizado, Deputy National Legislative Director for the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), also spoke to the group and raised their concerns about and opposition to privatization. Kathleen Pachomski, President of AFGE Local 3930, and a Registered Nurse at the Memphis VA Medical Center, spoke eloquently about her commitment to deliver high quality care to veterans. Pachomski is also a veteran herself and receives care at the VHA. “I would not get care anywhere else,” she stated.
Eric Young, AFGE Council of Prison Locals President, spoke not only as a federal employee opposed to privatization and the denial of due process rights to federal employees but as a Navy veteran.
” I joined the Army and served abroad during Operation Desert Storm…. Frankly, I wouldn’t be sitting here today talking to all of you if it wasn’t for the VA. Had it not been for the care I received after I got home I would be dead today and that’s a fact!” he said.
“If you would have looked at me during that time, you’d have never known how sick I was,” he continued. “To the outside world I looked like a young, healthy soldier returning home, but inside my body was tearing itself up. My blood pressure was sky high, almost at stroke level, and my kidneys were failing.
“Even though I couldn’t understand why this was happening to me, my VA primary care team made sure I was taking the steps I needed to recover. My nurse practitioner literally mothered me through my recovery. She made sure that I went to my appointments and took my medicine. And when I didn’t she chewed me out. The relationship that I developed with my VA healthcare team was more than transactional. It was personal. They didn’t just provide care – they actually cared.”
Finally I spoke about the salami strategy of privatization that I have described in a document entitled Ten Ways to Privatize and Kill the VHA. I concluded my remarks by holding up a bumper sticker produced by the San Francisco based group Fighting for Veterans Health Care (FFVHC).
The bumper sticker asks the public to join to “Save Our VA” “I am not a veteran, “ I told the group. “But I consider the VHA my VA as well as veterans’. I pay for it as a taxpayer. I benefit from its research, teaching and models of clinical care. It is my VA, Our VA, even if we are not veterans. Congress,” Please, Save Our VA.”
The panelists supported Bernie Sanders “Strengthening Veterans Health Care Act of 2017 would allocate $5 billion to the VA to hire more doctors, nurses and other medical professionals to fill these vacancies and ensure that veterans continue to get the best care in a timely manner.”
They also supported a bill put forward by Representative Anthony Brown. — The VA Staffing and Vacancies Transparency Act of 2017 would require the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to post the number of job vacancies at the VA and report to Congress on what steps the Department is taking to reach full staffing capacity.Filed under: National Politics