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Veterans Care Under Attack

An article in the American Prospect lays out how the Veterans Health Administration public approach to care – effective & efficient – is under siege, pushed at great cost to privatization. Not only by the proposed GOP/MAGA gutting, but by a complicit current administration.

February 26, 2024

Trump’s VA Plans Look Too Much Like Biden’s VA Reality
The American Prospect
February 19, 2024
By Suzanne Gordon & Steve Early

While Project 2025 plots VA dismantling, its Biden-appointed leader tells workers to ‘stay out of politics.’

 During a recent campaign speech in North Carolina, former President Donald Trump claimed that, when he first entered the White House seven years ago, there were “sadists” working at the VA who “would beat up old wonderful soldiers. Beat the hell out of them … and we weren’t allowed to fire them.” In a meeting with New Hampshire veterans, Trump urged them to support his re-election effort so, next year, he can fire “every corrupt VA bureaucrat who Joe Biden has outrageously refused to remove from the job or put back in the job.”

Such threats are not MAGA rally rhetoric. They constitute Trump’s plan of action for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which has the second-largest workforce and third-largest budget of any federal agency.

As the Prospect and other media outlets have warned, Trump and his supporters will be much better prepared next January to seize the levers of power than they were in 2017. According to one former Trump official, their collective mission will be to act as a “wrecking ball” aimed at “the administrative state [from] Day One.”

Right-wing policy wonks, who are part of a Heritage Foundation–sponsored group called Project 2025, have developed a detailed agenda to slash federal spending and cut taxes, dismantle key agencies, strip 50,000 workers of civil service protections, renegotiate union contracts, and privatize even more government functions, like providing medical care to nine million patients of the VA-run Veterans Health Administration (VHA). …

[T]he current administration does not offer enough of an alternative to Trump’s own VA agenda, past and future. Biden’s VA leaders continue to ignore the elephant in the room: the already swinging wrecking ball of privatization. One sign of this is the rare Project 2025 praise of Biden appointees, for “adopt[ing] some of their predecessors’ governance processes” at the VA.

… Biden’s VA secretary Denis McDonough has dragged his feet on reversing Trump-era administrative rules determining veteran eligibility for private-sector care. The Veterans Community Care Program (VCCP), launched by his Republican predecessor and authorized by the MISSION Act, has been expanded to include 1.6 million outside medical care vendors. VCCP utilization is growing by 17 percent a year, 42 percent of VA patients are now channeled into the private sector, and the program is consuming over 30 percent of the VHA’s clinical care budget. That has, of course, weakened the VA’s direct-care capacity, strained its finances, and made working conditions worse for frontline caregivers.

As a result of this and other management decisions, the VHA is now facing a $4 to $5 billion budget deficit and will have to curtail new hiring. …

VA headquarters has already informed local and regional medical center leaders that they must maintain “neutral FTE’s.” Dr. Shereef Elnahal, the VA’s current under secretary for health, has repeatedly acknowledged that the resulting workload increases will add to job stress and burnout. But he is already contributing to that with his drive to increase patient loads for clinicians via a much-disliked system of “bookable hours,” a productivity measurement of the sort favored by Project 2025.

Prospect interviews with VHA facility managers around the country reveal that they are warning VA headquarters that local program cuts and staff layoffs will be necessary soon, if outsourcing costs continue to drain local budgets. As one VA medical center chief of staff predicted, “If the Secretary does not revise the access standards to community care so we are actually able to meet them, in five years, we won’t be able to deliver care, we’ll be just another insurance company.”

… the Biden administration plans to spend $23.5 billion over the next decade on an “Integrated Critical Staffing Program” (ICSP), a gravy train for HR outsourcing firms that will fill VA jobs by hiring non-union temps. Another just-announced initiative allocates $14 billion to hire “commercial health care consultants” and other vendors who will advise the agency on modernization of its service provision. The VA will be adding many more contractors to its roster even though its own Office of Inspector General has just released a report documenting that the agency isn’t adequately vetting and monitoring those already on the payroll.

Both initiatives are very much in the spirit of Project 2025’s encouragement of private-sector partnerships “to improve the overall patient experience,” which most studies confirm is better inside, rather than outside, the VHA. …

In a New Year’s message, the VA secretary warned about “controversies and challenges … that will get accentuated during this presidential election year.” During this trying period, he wrote, “our noble mission, our singular purpose and our critical responsibility to always keep Veterans at the heart of everything we do … requires each of us to stay out of politics” (emphasis added).

…As one former AFGE official told us, “That message was threatening, dangerous, and factually wrong—something you’d expect of his Republican predecessor. The original intent of the Hatch Act was to protect federal workers from political pressure and patronage. It does not mean they should ‘stay out of politics.’”…

This year’s general-election contest will indeed be noisy, but 2024 is not a year for political inaction by federal workers, either organizationally or individually. At the VA, where a third of the health care workforce consists of former service members like Hayes himself, nobody is better positioned to counter Trump’s demonization of “VA bureaucrats” as “sadistic” and “corrupt” than its frontline caregivers.

Only they can put a human face on who actually delivers “high-quality care” and helps veterans gain “timely access” to other service-related benefits. And if they fail to do that in sufficient numbers, particularly in key battleground states, just 11 months from now the keys to VA headquarters will be handed over to conservative promise-keepers from the Heritage Foundation. Their agenda has already proved disastrous, for VHA patients and providers, during Trump’s first term and, unfortunately, in its Biden-era iteration as well.

 

Comment by: Jim Kahn & Don McCanne

The Veterans Health Administration provides some of the most efficient and clinically effective care in the US, as revealed in various studies, many covered in HJM. It is living proof of the benefits of a mission focused on patient care and simplified (single payer!) financing.

Yet it is under attack by the MAGA GOP, as described in the Project 2025 plan. But also by the Biden administration with the current VA leadership pushing the ill-conceived privatization and incorrectly discouraging political involvement by employees in the pivotal upcoming election.

To be clear, a GOP/MAGA White House will destroy the VHA. A Democrat administration will permit us to fight for the integrity of the public VHA.

We, the people, must elect government legislators and administrators who do understand how well the public policies have been working for our veterans – officials who are dedicated to supporting them. Not only do we have to go to the polls to prevent the turnover of control to the Heritage extremists and their ilk, but we must communicate clearly to the current administration that we need to perpetuate the public VAH program that has served our veterans (and the taxpayers!) so successfully. We owe that to them!

About the Commentator, Jim Kahn

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Jim (James G.) Kahn, MD, MPH (editor) is an Emeritus Professor of Health Policy, Epidemiology, and Global Health at the University of California, San Francisco. His work focuses on the cost and effectiveness of prevention and treatment interventions in low and middle income countries, and on single payer economics in the U.S. He has studied, advocated, and educated on single payer since the 1994 campaign for Prop 186 in California, including two years as chair of Physicians for a National Health Program California.

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