by Billy F Trent
President Obama and the Veterans Administration bureaucracy are already sabotaging the VA reform law passed in August. The ink is barely dry on the 8.6 million “Choice Cards” that supposedly allow vets to see a doctor outside the delay-plagued system. But Obama’s budget tries to snatch the $10 billion allocated for choice and allow it to be spent however VA top administrators want. It’s a sickening betrayal.
Even worse, VA Secretary Robert McDonald is telling federal lawmakers that this underhanded move will better serve “VA system priorities.” That’s the problem. He’s more interested in protecting “the system” than vets. It’s all about bureaucratic turf and union jobs.
With a straight face, McDonald says it has “nothing to do with us trying to gut the Choice Card or anything like that, it was about flexibility.” Flexibility for VA bureaucrats, not for ailing vets who need it. Removing the funding definitely will gut the program because the law says the Choice program expires whenever funding runs out.
At a February 2 press briefing, VA administrators facetiously claimed that sick vets don’t want to see outside physicians, and that use of the Choice Cards was “much lower” than they had expected. That’s a whopper. When asked, they couldn’t provide any specifics.
Pete Hegseth, CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, can. He reports that vets get the run around when they call the VA for permission to use the Choice Card. “The VA is making a concerted attempt to undermine anything that looks like choice.” Vets get told they don’t meet the requirement for living 40 miles or more from a VA facility, or they haven’t endured an unacceptably long wait for care, or their care isn’t medically necessary.
VA administrators are lying to Congress when they say vets don’t want choice. A Tarrance Group poll the first week of February found that 88 percent of vets polled said it is “extremely” or “very important” to increase their healthcare choices.
Here’s another whopper: The President’s budget parrots the VA’s claim that the money allocated for Choice is urgently needed to “support essential investments in VA system priorities.” How urgent are those priorities? At their press briefing, the VA brass couldn’t name any.
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chair Jeff Miller (R-FL) dismisses the notion that the Choice money is needed elsewhere, pointing out that the VA has “left hundreds of millions in health-care funding unspent since 2010 while thousands of vets languished on waiting lists.” Not to mention that the president’s new budget proposal increases VA funding by another 7.5 percent.
“It’s not about money,” says Hegseth. “The VA wants to perpetuate its dysfunctional system” by keeping vets from choosing to go elsewhere for care.
The shenanigans against Choice are one sign that little progress has been made at the VA since the celebrated enactment of the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014. Politicians took their bows, and then the VA administrators got busy dismantling the reforms before they could succeed.
Too bad lives are at stake. On February 12, President Obama signed a suicide prevention bill, named for Clay Hunt, a Marine who had served in Iraq and later killed himself. It passed Congress unanimously. Too bad no lawmakers asked whether it has any chance of succeeding.
The answer is: probably not. The law says VA suicide prevention programs will get outside evaluations. So what? The VA has been inspected ad nauseam by the General Accountability Office, Inspectors General, and other auditors. The reports pile up, unread, and the VA’s dysfunction lives on. Indeed, the GAO — unimpressed with the reform promises of the new VA Secretary — just named the entire Veterans Administration a “high risk” program.
What’s needed is a system that puts vets in the driver’s seat, allowing us to take their medical care funding wherever they choose. On February 26, a bipartisan task force assembled by Concerned Veterans for America will unveil such a plan. It’s already attracting support of powerful lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), and Miller. But with the VA leadership and unions lined up against them, they have their work cut out for them.