Union calls for more hiring at VA health care facilities and no more privatization

Veterans Affairs (VA) health care workers in Kerrville, Texas joined a growing number of VA hospital workers protesting plans to privatize the VA.

The VA workers on November 29 rallied outside the gates of the Kerrville VA Medical Center located in the Central Texas Hill Country.

Earlier in the month, VA health care workers, members of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), rallied in Dallas, Temple, and Austin.

They have joined a national movement of union workers protesting plans to privatize the VA and demanding that the VA administration fill 49,000 vacant staff positions at VA health care facilities across the US.

The Kerrville VA workers said that allowing so many vacancies to persist puts the health and safety of their patients at risk.

Cheryl Eliano, national vice president AFGE District 10, said that the failure to fully staff VA facilities and the effort to privatize the VA go hand in hand.

“The lack of hiring is a strategic move to justify privatizing the VA,” said Eliano to the San Antonio Express News. “If they gave the VA the resources to do our jobs, the lines for veterans to get services wouldn’t be so long.”

The VA has been in the sights of privatization advocates since 2014 when the media began reporting that some veterans were having to wait too long for medical appointments at VA facilities.

A number of right-wing, pro-privatization groups used the long wait periods as an excuse to ramp up efforts to privatize the VA.

At the time, David J. Cox, Sr., national president of AFGE blamed the long wait periods on understaffing.

“When we look deeper into this issue of extended wait times for veterans to receive an appointment, we have to recognize that understaffing is a major culprit, Cox said.

In order to reduce long wait periods, Congress passed a bill that did two things: it increased VA health care funding so that VA facilities could hire more staff and upgrade its facilities, and it created a privatized alternative called Veterans Choice.

Veterans Choice, which provides veterans with vouchers to use with private health care services, was supposed to be a temporary alternative for veterans to use until the VA fixed its understaffing problem.

But plans are underway to expand it and make it permanent.

In June, the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs held hearings on a bill that expanded VA Choice and made it permanent.

At the hearing representatives of congressionally charted veterans group voiced their opposition to VA Choice and their support for the VA.

“The American Legion supports a strong VA that relies on outside care as little as possible and only when medically necessary, rather than a move toward vouchers and privatization,” said American Legion Assistant Director Jeff Steele at the hearing.

“Even with the additional options of the Choice program, veterans in general overwhelmingly prefer to use VA,” said Disabled American Veterans Deputy National Legislative Director Adrian Atizado to the committee. “DAV strongly urges this committee, Congress, and the administration to honor the clear preference of the vast majority of veterans who choose to use the VA health care system–a system created to meet their unique needs.”

Despite the veterans groups’ support of the VA, the Republican leadership in Congress, President Trump, and the VA administration are moving ahead with other plans to privatize VA health care services.

In November, word leaked out about secret meetings between President Trump’s administration and the VA’s administration.

Out of the meetings came memos that proposed a plan for merging VA Choice with Tricare, the military’s health care system for troops, their dependents, and retirees.

In a letter to VA Secretary David Shulkin, five Democratic members of Congress, who are veterans, told the secretary that had “grave concerns” about a Tricare-VA merger.

“A Tricare-VA merger could compel veterans entitled to care provided by the VA system to instead seek care through the private sector, a shift that could unfairly force veterans to pay out-of-pocket costs that they wouldn’t otherwise be required to bear,” wrote representatives Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), Salud Carbajal (D-CA), Anthony Brown (D-MD), Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Collin Peterson (D-MN).

While all of this activity aimed at privatizing the VA has been taking place, the VA has done little to deal with the understaffing problem that originally caused the long waits.

In fact, the understaffing problem has gotten worse. In 2016, there were 42,000 vacant positions at VA facilities. By the end of 2017, that number had grown to 49,000.

“If . . . Secretary (Shulkin) were interested in improving the care veterans receive, he would stop trying to outsource to for-profit providers and instead focus on filling the more than 49,000 vacancies plaguing the VA nationwide,” said AFGE’s Cox. “The men and women who served our country were promised a health care system that fulfills their needs, not a voucher to go stand in the back of the line at private providers ill-equipped to treat them.”

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