Activists Rally to “Save Our VA”

by on June 12, 2019

It’s 7:30 in the morning on June 6th and the San Francisco VA Medical Center at Fort Miley is enshrouded in early summer fog.  A group of veterans stand at the entrance to the hospital holding banners proclaiming, “Save Our VA” and “Defend Our VA from Privatization.“  As employees come to work or veterans arrive for their appointments, many honk in support.   Those entering the facility on foot grab a leaflet explaining the issue of VA privatization. Another leaflet, prepared by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) describes the Trump administration’s assault on VA employees in its current contract negotiations.

The veterans are part of a nationwide “Save Our VA” (SOVA) campaign launched by Veterans for Peace (VFP).  They chose June 6th — the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the allied landing in Normandy in World War Two, because a new program mandated by the VA MISSION Act of 2018, was rolled out on the anniversary of D-Day. This is the Veterans Community Care Program (VCCP), which will outsource more veteran care from the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) to the private sector.

Paul Cox, a Vietnam veteran, member of Veterans for Peace as well as the American Legion and a patient at Fort Miley, explains why he got up at 5:30 in the morning to drive from Berkeley to San Francisco. “I’m convinced this outsourcing is going to do serious damage to the Veterans Health Administration’s ability to provide healthcare to America’s veterans. I’ve been reading the PR the VA has sent out to us veterans about how this new program is going to be just the most wonderful thing.  It’s so cynical.  The quality of care we’re going to be able get in the private sector is never going to match what we get in the VHA.”

“There is no way private doctors and hospitals,” Cox continues, “understand the special needs of veterans.  Veterans come in with PTSD, TBI (traumatic brain injury), MST (military sexual trauma), and that’s just not something that’s on their radar.  They don’t know anything about Agent Orange, burn pits, depleted uranium.”

Another problem, Cox points out, is that the VCCP is going to pay non- VA providers Medicare rates. “There are a lot of providers out there who won’t accept those rates.  I am also concerned that it’s often impossible for vets in rural areas to find providers, because there just aren’t enough of them. All this inexcusable.  They send us off to war and they better damn well take care of us when we get back”

Cox believes most veterans have no idea what is in store for them in the private sector, which is why he and his fellow protestors are handing out leaflets prepared by the Veterans Healthcare Policy Institute (VHPI) advising veterans about what they should ask the VHA clerks and providers when they are informed about eligibility for private sector care.  Questions like:

“What data do you have about the quality of care I will receive from the refered provider?”

“Is the quality any better than what I would get here at the VA?”

“Will the cost be the same in the Community Care Network as it is at the VA?”

Veterans says, 76- year- old Vietnam veteran Jim Dorenkott, as he holds up his end of a Save Our VA banner, also don’t know that the MISSION Act could lead to the “plundering” of the VHA budget and erosion of its services.  Instead of sending veterans out to the private sector, he wants Trump’s VA leadership to fill the 49,000 unfilled vacancies in the agency.

As the veterans hold their banners and speak with employees and patients, they are joined by Cheryl Lanier- Gates, President of Local 1216 of AFGE.  Lanier- Gates is deeply concerned about the hardline Trump’s VA Secretary Robert Wilkie is taking with VA employees in their current contract negotiations. Wilkie and Trump appointed VA leaders are trying to limit employees’ ability to file grievances, evicting union reps from their offices on VA premises, changing work schedules without prior notice to employees, and eliminating whistleblower protections.

If VA employees no longer have access to union representation and can be more easily fired, Lanier-Gates knows   they will be fearful about reporting any serious patient care problems that emerge with the VA MISSION Act.  “There’s a real connection between workers’ rights on the job and patient care,” she says.

This theme was echoed in rallies across the country – rallies in which veterans and trade unionists received support from members of other unions as well as healthcare reform and social justice advocates.  In San Diego, members of Veterans for Peace who are VA patients joined forces with AFGE and the National Nurses United to host a press conference.   “Our press conference on June 5th was well attended by local TV stations and media,” says VA patient and VFP member Jim Brown.  “The next day, June 6th, we held Save Our VA banners over Interstate 5 at rush hour and thousands of people stuck in traffic saw our message.  The support was amazing, people were honking and cheering us on.”

Skip Delano, of Veterans for Peace, also worked with the AFGE and NNU to organize a rally outside the Manhattan VA Medical Center and reported similar support for “a moving picket line chanting “THEY SAY PRIVATIZE, WE SAY FIGHT BACK — WHOSE VA! OUR VA! WHOSE HEALTHCARE? OUR HEALTHCARE!”

Although VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has been tirelessly promoting what he and his boss, trumpet (pun intended) as a “revolution” in veteran healthcare, many veterans who depend on the VHA are skeptical. Bob Anderson a Vietnam combat veteran from Albuquerque reported that, “I asked for a GI consult at the Albuquerque VAMedical Center. A scheduler called to set it up.  She said they had no open appointment times till early July but I could get one sooner with one of the private sector providers. I told her no I was not participating in the privatization of the VA and to schedule me at the VA in July.  This opened up a whole conversation with her about privatization and she was aware of what was happening and thanked me for scheduling here at the VA.  She said the private sector providers were probably not as good as what we have here.  I said Congress was trying to starve the VA and shut it down and she was listening and agreeing.”

In the coming weeks and months, both trade unionists and SOVA campaigners say they will be carefully tracking how aggressively veterans are pushed out into the private sector, how costs will escalate and whether VHA care will deteriorate as a result.

Suzanne Gordon is the author of Wounds of War: How the VA Delivers Health, Healing and Hope to the Nation’s Veterans.

Filed under: National Politics

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