Local veterans and union members who staff the Minneapolis VA Hospital have been publicly calling out the Trump administration in recent months for understaffing in VA facilities and a string of attacks on VA workers’ rights. Members of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents about 260,000 VA workers, have rallied and demonstrated relentlessly at the busy intersection of Hiawatha Avenue and Highway 62, near the hospital. Their events are drawing support from activists in the Minnesota chapter of Veterans for Peace.
In mid-August, former Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Anthony Principi (2001-2005) worked to get a number of fellow former VA chiefs to sign on to a draft Op-Ed encouraging the House to take up a Senate-passed suicide prevention bill —S. 785: The Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act. The seemingly innocuous legislation actually represents a major step towards privatizing veterans’ mental health care. It will give the VA Secretary broad authority to award $174 million in grants up to $750,000 in size to private sector programs that ostensibly enhance veterans’ mental health and reduce veteran suicide.
Suzanne Gordon, a longtime health care reporter and author of Wounds of War: How the VA Delivers Health, Healing, and Hope to the Nation’s Veterans, says the VA “outperforms the private sector with one hand tied behind its back.” The VA delivers health care to around nine million veterans each year at more than 1,200 sites across the country. In Wounds of War, Gordon described the VA as resembling “the health care systems of almost all other industrialized nations: a full-service health care system that both pays for and delivers all types of care to those it serves.” The VA’s health care providers are salaried, rather than paid by the service, meaning they can actually spend time with their patients, and its integrated system cares for the whole patient, from when they leave the military to end-of-life care. This makes the VA uniquely invested in keeping its patients well.
Before embarking on a 36-hour tour through an underground of contractors and middlemen trying to make a buck on the nation’s desperate need for masks, entrepreneur Robert Stewart Jr. offered an unusual caveat. “I’m talking with you against the advice of my attorney,” the man in the shiny gray suit, an American Flag button with the word “VETERAN” pinned to his blazer, said as we boarded a private jet Saturday from the executive wing at Dulles International Airport. It remains a mystery why the CEO of Federal Government Experts LLC let me observe his frantic effort to find 6 million N95 respirators and the ultimate unraveling of his $34.5 million deal to supply them to the Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals, where 20 VA staff have died of COVID-19 while the agency waits for masks.
Two years ago, President Trump persuaded a bipartisan coalition in Congress to pass the VA MISSION Act of 2018. It authorized a costly expansion of outsourcing by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which provides healthcare for nine million former military personnel. Under the guise of giving VA patients more “choice” and speeding up their doctor appointments and hospital treatment, the Trump Administration has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on private sector providers, while refusing to fill an estimated 44,000 to 50,000 vacancies among VA caregivers.