AFGE ramping up anti-privatization campaign, as VA readies new Choice draft

This story has been updated Wednesday, Oct. 18 to reflect VA’s comments about the number of vacancies. 

The Veterans Affairs Department on Monday released its long-awaited proposal to refashion the current Veterans Choice Program.

VA’s draft proposal, or the Veterans Coordinated Access and Rewarding Experiences (CARE) Act, suggests eliminating the current, arbitrary eligibility requirement that veterans must meet in order to qualify for care in the private sector. Under the current Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, veterans must live 40 miles away from a VA facility or wait 30 days or longer for care.

“We want veterans to work with their VA physicians to make informed decisions that are best for their clinical needs, whether in the VA or in the community, and this bill does just that while strengthening VA services at the same time,” VA Secretary David Shulkin said in a statement yesterday.

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But the American Federation of Government Employees isn’t buying it.

“This is a step to dismantle, privatize [and] to avoid hiring these 49,000 vacancies,” AFGE National President J. David Cox said during a call Tuesday morning with reporters.

AFGE has been making a concerted push in recent weeks to raise awareness of the tens of thousands of open positions at VA.

“As these vacancies are plaguing the agency nationwide, Congress and the administration are busy patting themselves on the back for eliminating veterans’ rights at work,” Cox said.

He’s referring to the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, which Congress passed and the president signed into law over the summer, which gives the VA secretary the authority to expedite the review on VA executives’ disciplinary appeals without the Merit Systems Protection Board.

AFGE actively expressed its opposition against that bill, arguing that its provisions would unravel due process rights for VA employees.

According to VA, the department has fewer vacancies now than what Shulkin had last described in September. As of Sept. 29, the department has 35,345 total full-time equivalent vacancies, a VA spokesman said.

Shulkin said he believed the law would improve morale and wouldn’t hinder the department’s ability to recruit and retain qualified talent to fill vacancies. Shulkin has described VA’s hiring challenge as the biggest challenge facing the department.

Yet AFGE said leaving those vacancies unfilled is “irresponsible” and questioned whether the department is publicly posting for all of those open job positions.

Cox acknowledged there were “good and bad parts” of VA’s draft Choice legislation. He agrees the department should consolidate the many community care programs that currently exist into one.

But AFGE fears legislation that eliminates those eligibility rules will pave the way for VA “voucher” system for private health care.

Lawmakers have frequently said they’re not interested in privatizing VA health care.

“Somebody saying they’re not interested in privatizing the VA and their actions to privatize the VA don’t always match up,” Will Fischer, government relations director for VoteVets, said Tuesday. “You’re going to hear people say all the time, ‘Oh, I’m not trying to destroy and privatize the VA.’ Yet they’re going to want to privatize just this little piece over here.”

House and Senate VA committees are reviewing VA’s CARE Act proposal now and plan to debate it in a public forum in the coming weeks.

The VA draft also includes:

  • Proposals for “new workforce tools” to recruit and retain VA medical professionals,
  • Business process changes to improve financial management for the community care programs, and
  • Provisions that would strengthen VA’s real property management authorities.

Real property authorities would be a timely addition for the department, as Congress is also debating legislation that would authorize a BRAC-like commission to realign and close some outdated and vacant VA medical facilities.

AFGE believes that proposal is also wrong for the VA.

“The VA does not need a BRAC,” Cox said. “If the VA has outdated buildings, as there are at some facilities, then yeah, those buildings need to be dealt with, maybe they need to be demolished and a new building built. The private sector constantly tears down old parts of its hospitals or clinics and builds new hospitals and clinics. … A BRAC is wrong. It’s dead wrong.”