VA privatization ‘is a very real issue right now,’ American Legion says

Recent reports of internal squabbles between top leaders at the Veterans Affairs Department and White House appointees have the nation’s largest veterans service organization actively reinforcing its message about the Veterans Choice Program.

The American Legion is adamantly speaking out against proposals that may move the VA’s health system in the direction of privatized care.

“Privatization is a very real issue right now,” Verna Jones, executive director for the American Legion, told reporters at the National Press Club Friday morning.

“This isn’t something we can sit idly by and hope that it doesn’t happen,” she added. “We have to make sure that we’re out creating programs, talking to our lawmakers to make sure that privatization doesn’t happen.”

If too many dollars from the VA budget go toward paying private health care providers, the Legion said it fears the department will be forced to turn away veterans seeking care from a VA medical facility.

“It’s prohibitively expensive,” said Lou Celli, the Legion’s national veterans affairs director. “We can’t see the number of veterans that VA sees on a regular basis if we’re going to pay the same rates that other health care industries pay in the community. One of the things we’re most concerned about is an increased contracting out, when we should be able to do that on VA campuses that will deplete the amount of money that’s available to see veterans.”

Though both the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees spent much of 2017 working with the Legion and other veterans service organizations on a variety of ideas detailing a future VA Choice program, lawmakers in both chambers punted the issue to 2018.

Many of the committees’ discussions were bipartisan. The Caring for Our Veterans Act had the support of nearly all members on the Senate VA Committee. That legislation cleared the committee with a 14-1 vote.

But Congress so far this year has used a series of short-term funding extensions to keep the Choice program afloat without a new legislative alternative. And the White House has submitted its own suggestions on new legislative language to include in a bill.

Lawmakers have been unable to agree how to pay for the next iteration of the Choice program. Additional arguments over the eligibility requirements for Choice are another holdup.

The Legion, however, is holding strong on its message.

“I certainly understand that we have many veterans across the nation who live in remote areas and it’s hard for them to get to a VA facility, and others may be near an over-crowded VA center that hasn’t done an acceptable job of managing the wait times,” American Legion Cmdr. Denise Rohan told reporters. “Choice, when it’s run effectively, is an important component overall in our VA health care system. But that choice should not lead to a private system that would break the solemn promise that we as a nation have made to those who defended our freedoms.”

“Our veterans put their lives on hold,” Rohan added. “They put their lives on the line for the red, white and blue, not Blue Cross Blue Shield.”

The Legion was one of the first of the “big six” veterans service organizations to release statements in support of VA Secretary David Shulkin, who has come under scrutiny in recent weeks after the department’s inspector general faulted him for improperly mixing government work and sightseeing during a trip to Europe last summer.

“VA Secretary Shulkin has promised to resist efforts to privatize his department, and we fully support him in trying to stop the well-funded lobbying efforts from doing just that,” said Rohan, who added that she was pleased with the strides the secretary has made so far during his first year on the job.

The Legion is one of a handful of veterans service organizations that will present legislative priorities to the House and Senate VA committees next week.

In addition to its message on Choice, the Legion will also encourage VA not to lose focus as it continues to implement a new electronic health record that’s interoperable with the Defense Department, Rohan said.

VA’s progress and success means a great deal to the Legion, Rohan said. Years of bad press at the agency has worsened morale and pride for VA’s employees.

Hospital administrators have told the Legion they’re having difficulty recruiting and retaining top talent to work at their medical centers, Rohan said.

“There is a concern that the VA hospitals are getting such bad press, that they’re having issues filling some of the staffing positions,” she said. “They’re having those issues.”