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VA Mission Act: A Mission to Help Veterans or Effort to Privatize the VA?

(This article first appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of The American Postal Worker magazine) 

The Veterans Administration Maintaining Systems and Strengthening Integrated Outside Networks Act was signed into law on June 6, 2018. Dubbed the VA MISSION Act, the “reform” was touted to improve veteran access to VA health care and pave the way for a major overhaul of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which has long been plagued with problems that negatively impact our veterans.

Critics, however, see the act as an effort to privatize the VA. If you look at the fine print, they just might be right.

“To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan,” were the words proclaimed by President Lincoln in his second inaugural address and adopted by the VA as its mission. While many believe the VA has inherently honored Lincoln’s vision, others believe the VA has hit the pause button, favoring bureaucrats over veterans and favoring performance bonuses over favorable health care.

Chief complaints among veterans have included extraordinary delays in scheduling appointments, sub-standard care and limited services. To combat these issues, the VA Choice Program, a controversial measure, was approved by Congress in 2014 after veterans died waiting for care. Like Choice, MISSION is intended to allow veterans to afford prompt medical care, and seek health care with private-sector medical providers when distance, treatment options, or delays in scheduling are an issue.

But Choice had its share of failures. Private-sector doctors complained payment for services were delayed or not made, causing many to drop out. Choice participants were still left waiting an average of 51 days to receive care in 2016. According to the General Accountability Office (GAO), the VA relied on inaccurate and unreliable data, and the GAO found VA staff often changed appointment dates to alter the appearance of wait times. Despite these unfavorable circumstances, last April, the RAND Corporation, a global policy think tank, found the VA medical system to be working as well or better than other health systems with a few caveats.

Nevertheless, President Trump and his privateers have their eye on the VA. Seven different programs governing non-VA medical care will be consolidated. These privatizers claim MISSION will address in-network health care, veteran homes, access to walk-in VA care, the expansion of caregiver programs, and include safe opioid prescription procedures.

The GAO projects MISSION will fail, placing veterans at risk if lessons learned from Choice are ignored. Over 30 Veteran Service Organizations endorsed the reform as it worked its way through legislative channels, but MISSION was not widely advertised to the general public. MISSION gives the VA Secretary the authority to privatize and dismantle broad swaths of the VA health care system, and offers nothing to help the VA fulfill its mission.

The American Federation of Government Employees and 17 other labor organizations, including the AFL-CIO Union Veterans Council, condemned MISSION as offering nothing to build the internal capacity of the VA, only ensuring that care and services will not return once gone.

Provisions in the law allow for VA medical accounts to be depleted without restrictions. The law outsources primary care to the private sector, outsources entire service lines and fails to address chronic, prolonged understaffing (49,000 agency positions are unfulfilled) that is likely a core source of the VA’s declining reputation. Our veterans earned the right to timely, quality health care. Instead, lawmakers wrapped themselves in the flag, only to sabotage the VA and vote to privatize it to further enrich their campaign donors and private hospital executives.

Privatization is never the answer. Thank you for your service.

– Human Relations Department