Federal Employees News Digest

Unions push back against commission’s VA reform recommendations

Federal employee unions and some veterans’ advocates pushed back last week against the recently issued recommendations of the Commission on Care, a panel made up of 15 members tasked with recommending ways to improve the way the Department of Veterans Affairs delivers healthcare to the nation’s veterans.

The House Veterans Affairs Committee at a Sept. 7 hearing took a first stab at examining those recommendations, which were published in a final report in July.

Two members of the commission—Chairperson Nancy Schlichting, also CEO of the Henry Ford Health System, and Vice-Chairperson Dr. Delos Cosgrove, president and CEO of the Cleveland Clinic—testified, while VA Secretary Bob McDonald and numerous labor and veterans service organizations submitted statements for the record expressing support or rejection of various recommendations contained in the report.

Veterans Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) registered a mix of support and reservations.

“I wholly agree with the commission’s call for creating an integrated VA community care system, modernizing VA’s outdated IT systems, better managing VA’s vast capital assets, reorganizing the massive and unfocused Veterans Health Administration Central Office, reviewing eligibility for care in light of the modern healthcare landscape, and more,” he said, in his opening statement.

“However, I disagree, as does the administration and many of the VSOs, with the commission’s call for the establishment of a board of directors to provide governance, set long-term strategy, and direct and oversee reform,” Miller continued. “Outsourcing the crucial role of a cabinet secretary to an independent board that is neither elected nor accountable to the American people would be irresponsible and inappropriate, not to mention unconstitutional.”

Unions oppose bulk of proposal

One major union that submitted statements regarding the commission’s report, the American Federation of Government Employees, rejected all of its key recommendations.

In fact, AFGE National President J. David Cox, Sr. called the report a “horrendous, anti-veteran proposal” in a statement issued in advance of the hearing.

“If the commission’s mission, as they state in their report, was to ‘provide eligible veterans prompt access to quality health care,’ they have achieved the opposite,” Cox said. “The only result of these recommendations would be to fragment the most integrated health care approach in the nation, lower quality across the board by sending veterans to for-profit private providers, line the pockets of private hospital corporations, and hand over control of veterans’ health care to an out-of-touch, corporate-style board.”

In its full statement to the congressional committee, AFGE said it “vehemently opposes Commission recommendations that would result in a massive shift of VA care to the private sector through unrestricted access to non-VA primary and specialty care and the transfer of primary control over veterans’ care from the Secretary to an unelected corporate-style board running a new VHA Care System.”

Some of the proposals, the union stated, would eliminate existing civil service protections to VA employees and thereby lower protections against on-the-job mistreatment and retaliation, as well as end seniority pay. The union rejected all such proposals. The union’s objections center on the privatizing drift of many of the commission’s proposals—which it says will lead to resources flowing out and away from the existing VA health system—and to the department’s ultimate “degradation or atrophy.”

President Obama, for his part, informed Congress by letter the previous week that he supported 15 of the 18 proposals in the report. He shared AFGE’s objections to the commission’s outside governance proposal—and registered his support for preserving the VA system, as well as for pursuing the administration’s own community care plan, rather than the one contained in the report.

Greater expertise with vets

Another major federal employee union with thousands of employees in the VA health system, the National Federation of Federal Employees, also conveyed to FEND its strong objections to any recommendation that could lead to further privatization of veterans’ health care.

“The privatization of the VA has been shown, on numerous grounds, to be a big mistake,” Drew Halunen, legislative director for NFFE, told FEND. “In fact, there’s a new study out from RAND that shows that veterans who receive treatment from the VA have better or equivalent outcomes to those treated under all private-sector options.”

“The VA’s personnel are trained specifically to assist our nation’s veterans—the VA’s own nurses and doctors and other staff,” Halunen continued. “And our veterans face a very particular set of problems—whether wellness-related, or related to physical or mental health issues—for all of it, you are better off with a professional who can handle all of these in veterans, specifically.”

“The attempt to privatize the VA has to be looked at critically—you have to look at who is on the commission, and who stands to benefit,” Halunen said. “There are a lot of private-sector hospital executives and practitioners who are on that commission. For them, it’s also good business for them to recommend the break-up of the VA and its quality health-care services—it means more business for them.”

“If people are serious about helping improve the VA, and helping veterans, we need to double down on the investments we already have,” Halunen said. “We need not to privatize, but to invest in our existing veterans’ facilities. We have facilities that have surgical rooms that go down, sometimes for weeks or longer at a time, because of problems with older ventilation systems—and we have other crumbling infrastructure at some of these VA facilities.”

“So, what we need to do is allocate the resources, to invest in addressing these [physical plant] issues—as well as in bettering staffing levels.” Halunen said. “It’s so very clear that veterans receive the best care at VA facilities, rather than non-VA facilities—so we need to invest more in those facilities.”


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