Federal Employees News Digest

AFGE vet advocates lobby to cut flaws

Advocates for veterans—and a major federal employee union—report they are succeeding in fighting back against what they say is waste and fraud that looms in administration efforts to privatize veteran suicide prevention programs.

The American Federation of Government Employees has taken a leading role in challenging H.R. 3495, which they and their allies said—if passed as originally written—would create an enormous “slush fund” for private interests, without improving the provision of actual help to veterans.

“Veterans’ well-being, not CEO pockets, should always be the priority of the VA’s suicide prevention program,” AFGE said in a press release. “But the health care industry and their allies in the Trump administration and Congress are pushing a bill that would turn public funding for veterans’ mental health care into private hospital CEOs’ slush fund—with no oversight or accountability.”

The “Improve Well-Being for Veterans Act”—which the union said has a “deceptive” name—would in practice “harm veterans who are suicidal or have mental health issues by sending these veterans to for-profit providers that are not guaranteed to care for and meet the unique needs of veterans,” the union stated.

AFGE said the name on the bill “should be changed to ‘Destroy the Well-Being of Veterans Act.’”

That’s because the bill aimed at encouraging and enabling non-VA providers to offer mental health services without coordinating with the services offered by the agency. These providers could “bypass the VA completely,” the union said—and use grant money in a wasteful and self-dealing manner.

These providers would not even have to show they are “capable of treating veterans,” according to the union.  

The union further faulted the bill for lacking what it sees as the most basic financial abuse safeguards. The proposed legislation came with no safeguard to ensure the bulk of agency funding for suicide prevention would go toward looking after veterans—hence tax dollars could, in practice, instead go to “CEO salaries” or other “indirect costs,” as the union noted.

A RAND study, cited by the union, said that in its research “[An] exploratory report, based on a survey of mental health providers nationally, found few community-based providers met criteria for military cultural competency or used evidence-based approaches to treat problems commonly seen among veterans.”

“The potential CEO slush fund is contrary to the requirements of federal contracts which have strict caps on costs,” Alma Lee, AFGE’s National VA Council president. “Veterans’ well-being, not CEO pockets, should always be the priority of VA suicide prevention services.”

As of press time, although the bill awaits full passage, the union said that through its efforts on Capitol Hill it had turned the tide against its most objectionable parts: “[An] amended version of the bill that ensures that veterans get expert care from the VA or other approved providers that was introduced by Committee Chairman. Mark Takano, D-Calif., was approved by the committee,” AFGE said in a release.

But the union and its veterans advocate allies remain vigilant against what they identify as the continuing efforts of the administration to cut back on the VA’s central role. “It’s the goal of the Koch brothers, health care industry, and their allies in Congress to privatize most veterans’ health care and eventually turn the VA into a mere insurance-like voucher program,” the union’s press release opined.

The union’s officers reiterated that finding—and expressed a need to keep fighting back against efforts to take federally-supported veteran suicide prevention in a privatized—and, they say, wasteful and less effective, direction.

“The VA’s mission is to provide care for veterans, so over the years it has developed into a world-class institution with teams of researchers who have pioneered advanced treatments tailored to fit the unique needs of veterans,” Everett Kelley, AFGE’s National Secretary-Treasurer, said. “Private, for-profit hospitals, on the other hand, are not designed with veterans in mind, do not have a holistic approach to veterans’ care, and simply can’t handle veterans’ unique needs.”

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Mike Causey Columnist
Mathew B. Tully Legal Analyst

2020 Digital Almanac

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