The Real Threats to Veterans’ Healthcare

by Suzanne Gordon on April 20, 2017

Suzanne Gordon

On Thursday April 13th, over 250 military veterans packed into a room in the Veterans Memorial Building in San Francisco to listen to House Democratic Leader Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and other healthcare experts talk about The Real Threats to Veterans Healthcare under the new Trump Administration.  The Forum, which was sponsored by the newly launched Veterans’ Healthcare Action Campaign, attracted an overflow crowd not only of veterans but employees of the Veterans Health Administration in San Francisco and Northern California as well as those concerned with the future of the American healthcare system. Veterans not only listened to the speakers but also shared their stories about their good experiences with the VHA as well as their concerns about stealth efforts to privatize America’s largest and only fully integrated, publically funded health care system – one that serves over nine million veterans.

Michael Blecker, executive director of San Francisco’s veterans service organization Swords to Plowshares introduced the event by discussing his experiences as a member of the VA Commission on Care, a Congressionally mandated group whose task was to consider the future of the VHA over the next twenty years.  Blecker, whose organization helps over 3000 veterans a year, warned that plans to privatize the VHA would cut off the most vulnerable veterans from services that are, to them, literally a matter of life or death.  During his stint on the Commission on Care, Blecker said, he confronted hospital and healthcare system executives who favored VHA privatization not because they cared about improving the health of veterans but because the transfer of billions of dollars from the public to private sector would dramatically enhance their bottom line.

In her comments, Nancy Pelosi explained that privatizing the VA is a real threat that she insisted she would steadfastly oppose.  “We will not let them make money off of delivering health care to our veterans and that’s a promise.  We’ve got to move our own health care system to a more nonprofit place, rather than moving our Veterans Health Administration to a ‘Let’s make more off our Vets’ place.”

As a founding member of the organization Fighting for Veterans Healthcare (FFVHC) and the Veterans Healthcare Action Campaign, I had the privilege of speaking to the group. As a non-veteran, I explained that I am interested in the future of the VHA not only because of the expertise it has developed in treating veterans’ complex, military related problems, but because it has pioneered a model of care from which all Americans could benefit.  This model goes way beyond the VA’s superior electronic medical record.  The VHA’s genius is care that integrates primary and mental healthcare, as well as pharmacy, nutrition, social work and specialty services in a kind of one stop shopping for veterans.  The VHA has the only functional mental and behavioral health system in the United States and conducts research that benefits not only veterans but also all Americans.

I argued that we all—veteran and non-veteran alike – must be very concerned about Congressional efforts to create a new Veterans Choice program – Choice 2.1.  Citing an FFVHC document – entitled “Wrong Choice: How Outsourcing Care Endangers VA Healthcare,” I explained that channeling more veterans out of the VHA and into the private sector healthcare system will eliminate the VHA as a provider of care that, as studies show, is equal or superior to the private sector doctors, mental health professionals and hospitals.”

While giving options to veterans sounds reasonable on the surface,” the paper explains,  “this misguided proposal alters the existing Veterans Choice Program in two crucial ways that will cripple and ultimately dismantle the VA healthcare system…

“Money to pay for outsourced care would be siphoned straight from the same pot that funds VA care. When a veteran uses non-VA care, local VA allocations would be reduced. Over time, as local VA funds are cut to pay for outsourced care, their providers, programs and clinics would be eliminated. The VA will become a shell of itself.”

As I point out in my new book The Battle for Veterans’ Healthcare: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Policy Making and Patient Care, Choice 2.1, is definitely a form of the kind of privatization so many veterans oppose.  Taxpayers would pay more – perhaps four times as much – for inferior care.  This would lead to restrictions in services to veterans, more out of pocket payments for veterans, and greater limitations on which veterans are eligible for VHA services.

Major General Mike Myatt, USMC (Ret.) and President and CEO of San Francisco’s Marine’s Memorial Association and Edgar Escobar, U.S. Army veteran and President of the Veterans Alliance of City College of San Francisco joined the panel in testifying to the positive impact of the VHA in their lives.  Although separated by branches of service and many decades in age, both bore witness to the way the VHA has helped them adjust to civilian life and cope with the illnesses and conditions acquired in their military service.

What was perhaps most moving about the event was the question and answer period in which dozens of veterans of all ages talked about their positive experiences with VHA. This is not a narrative we will hear in the nation’s media or from the Koch Brothers funded Concerned Veterans for America, both of which have been promoting the fake news that the VHA is broken beyond repair.  What these men and women described is a system that, despite its problems, has served them well. Sometimes choking back tears, many said that the VHA had, literally, “saved” their lives.

One veteran in his thirties, talked about his decade long struggle with drug and alcohol addiction. He had tried dozens of times, he said, to get help from private providers and programs but nothing worked until he hit bottom and enrolled in the VHA.  If you want real choices, he said, they are to be found in the VHA, where he was presented with inpatient, residential treatment, medication, group and individual therapy.  He availed himself of each and every one of these choices, which he added, might have been available in the private sector, but not at a cost he could afford. Now, he said, proudly, he has been clean and sober for over five years.

Bob Rowen, a Vietnam veteran, who came to the Forum all the way from Redding, talked about his experiences with a private sector health care system that offered him fragmented care and almost bankrupted his family when his first wife was dying of a brain tumor.  Now he relies on the VHA to coordinate his PTSD treatment, his high blood pressure, cholesterol and heart problems.  We cannot afford to lose the VA as our choice, he told the crowd.

The take home message was reiterated by Nancy Pelosi, who bluntly informed the audience that the “people who want to privatize the VA don’t want to make it better, they want to make a buck.”  Fight privatization in whatever forms it takes, she told the group.  Call your political representative, she advised.  Write emails to the members of the House and Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.  Make sure they know what your choice is and that you want to fix not dismantle the VHA.

Filed under: National Politics