The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), an AFL-CIO-affiliated union that represents Law Enforcement Officers, Defense workers, VA caregivers, and workers at nearly a dozen federal agencies, held a Privatization Roundtable on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
The panel addressed creeping VA privatization to more than 100 Congressional staffers, reporters, and interested citizens. Representatives Julia Brownley (D, CA-26), Mark Takano (D, CA-41) and Anthony Brown (D, MD-04) all stopped by the make remarks and pledge their support for the VA and their opposition to VA privatization. Sen. Bernie Sanders was supposed to appear but was forced to cancel because of a budget meeting.
On the Panel:
- Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) Research Director Jackie Maffucci who moderated the panel
- Psychologist and Association of VA Psychologist Leaders (AVAPL) representative Thomas Kirchberg,
- Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Deputy National Legislative Director Adrian Atizado
- Veteran, registered nurse at the Memphis VA Medical Center, and AFGE Local 3930 President Kathleen Pachomski
- Veteran, Federal Correctional Worker, and AFGE National Bureau of Prisons Union President Eric Young
- Suzanne Gordon, Author, Journalist, Patient Advocate, and Board Member of Fighting for Veterans’ Healthcare
Outsourcing Veterans’ Eligibility Claims
Kirchberg discussed attempts by VA’s leadership to outsource the Veterans Benefit Administration’s Compensation and Pension hearings. These hearings are held when veterans make claims for eligibility for VA services and compensation for service connected problems and pensions.
The hearings have traditionally been conducted by VA psychologists and medical staff. These experts rigorously conduct the hearings and understand the complex conditions and problems from which veterans suffer.
Now, in the name of easing the backlog of claims at an agency — the Veterans Benefit Administration has been chronically under-funded and short staffed — they are being farmed out to Lockheed Martin, a defense contractor with no expertise in veterans’ health problems.
Kirchberg eloquently stated that the Comp and Pen evaluation is the face of the VA for many veterans. Often, the hearings are the first time they tell their story to a stranger. That stranger, he argued, should be someone knowledgeable about military health problems.
Kirchberg worries that new contractors hired to do the job will cut corners, take less time with veterans, and be involved in box-checking exams where compassionate attention is sacrificed for processing more claims.
While claims must be evaluated, the question is by whom? If these claims aren’t carefully evaluated, then there will be more costly appeals and more delays in getting needed care to veterans.
Veterans Caring for Veterans
Pachomiski spoke eloquently about her commitment to deliver high-quality care to veterans. She also receives care at the VHA.
Young went beyond condemning efforts to privatize the VA. He also described the denial of due process rights to federal employees — but as a Navy veteran who receives care at the VHA. He has been treated for kidney problems and hypertension that threatened his life and the VHA saved him time and again. He would, Young said, never get care anywhere else.
Finally, Suzanne Gordon spoke about the salami strategy of privatization that she outlines in her “Ten Ways to Kill the VHA” document. Gordon who is a journalist writing about VHA healthcare, not a veteran, concluded her remarks by holding up the FFVHC Save Our VA bumper sticker. “I am not a veteran,” Gordon said. “But I consider the VHA my VA. I pay for it as a taxpayer. I benefit from its research, teaching and models of clinical care. It is my VA, our VA, even if we are not veterans. Congress,” Gordon asked the group and the political representatives in the building in which the forum was held,” Please, Save Our VA.”
Unanimous Support for $5 Billion VA Funding Bill
All the panelists supported Bernie Sanders “Strengthening Veterans Health Care Act of 2017“ which would allocate $5 billion to the VA to hire more doctors, nurses and other medical professionals to fill these vacancies and ensure that veterans continue to get the best care in a timely manner.
They also supported a bill put forward by Representative Anthony Brown. The VA Staffing and Vacancies Transparency Act of 2017 would require the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to post the number of job vacancies at the VA and report to Congress on what steps the Department is taking to reach full staffing capacity. It is estimated that between 35,000 and 50,000 VA positions are currently vacant, with little push to fill them.
Atizado also spoke at the roundtable and raised DAV’s concerns about and opposition to privatization.