CHOICE FOR VETS & PAYOFFS TO UNIONS
Richard Wilson, age 64, survived two tours in Vietnam but he’s afraid he won’t survive the wait at his local V.A. hospital.
Warned seven months ago that circulation blockages in his legs put him at imminent risk of a fatal heart attack or amputations, he called and e mailed the V.A. daily. Half a year went by before the V.A. even contacted him, and he’s still waiting for his surgery.
A compromise announced on the Senate floor Thursday may give vets like Wilson hope for speedier treatment, but the devil will be in the details. The actual bill has not been drafted yet.
The compromise breaks a deadlock between Senator Bernie Sanders (Vt. I ), Chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and several Republican senators including John McCain (R. Arizona) and Marco Rubio (R. Florida).
Until late Thursday, Sanders was resisting calls to fire VA employees linked to the secret wait lists and opposing GOP proposals to allow vets to seek care from civilian doctors and hospitals if the wait at the V.A. exceeds 30 days. Instead, Sanders was demanding more of what doesn’t work – increasing the V.A. budget, the staff, and opening more V.A. clinics and hospitals.
Sanders is a self-described Socialist, and nine of his top ten contributors are unions. His agenda is protecting union jobs, not ailing vets.
On May 22, Sanders scuffled with Senator Marco Rubio (Fl. R), over Rubio’s legislation to allow the V .A. to fire those linked to the secret lists. The legislation already had sailed through the House with bipartisan support. The American Legion and other vet groups backed it.
Sanders objected that he hadn’t read it. Rubio offered to wait while he did. The bill is only 351 words long.
Rubio insists a new V.A. director has to be able to “fire executives underneath him if they haven’t done their job – a power he doesn’t have right now.” But Sanders killed the bill, saying he wants to keep the “due process” rules – months of hearings and paperwork – that currently make firing federal workers as costly as firing public school teachers.
The compromise would permit the immediate firing of up to 450 administrators for manipulating wait lists or lying about it. Those fired will get an expedited appeals process and no salary while appealing.
Sanders had pushed for expanding V.A. enrollment to include vets with no combat-related problems or financial need. Higher V.A. enrollment automatically would translate into a bigger V.A. budget and more union jobs.
But advocates insisted that would harm waiting vets like Wilson. Stewart Hickey, executive director of American Veterans, said “you have an already stressed bureaucracy, then , you’re going to throw more on it for them to do. You’re just going to compound the problem.” The compromise apparently heeds that advice.
Sanders demanded emergency funding and got it -$500 million to hire more medical staff. No question there’s an emergency at the V.A. . But it’s about malfeasance, not lack of money. Congress has increased funding faster than the growth in V.A. patients. Generally, the V.A. has had about half a billion dollars left over at the end of the year.
Sanders also pushed for more V.A. hospitals and clinics. The compromise includes opening 26 more facilities in 18 states. Sadly, there is no mention of changing work rules to keep operating rooms open longer hours. In some facilities, they shut down at 3 pm despite vets urgently needing surgery.
To help these waiting vets Senator McCain and House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (Fl. R) proposed giving vets stuck in the backlog Choice Cards, enabling them to choose civilian care. Most V.A. hospitals have relationships with nearby teaching hospitals where older vets could get cardiovascular and cancer surgery with better survival rates than at the most V.A.s. The Choice Card is a key part of the compromise.
Sanders’ union allies have long opposed sending vets for outside care, and Sanders resisted the Choice Card idea. Vets must make sure the bill’s fine print doesn’t sabotage choice by underpaying non-VA doctors or ensnaring them in VA red tape.
The battle in Congress over V.A. reform came down to pandering to unions or helping vets like Richard Wilson. Thursday’s compromise looks like a partial win for vets, paid for with concessions to the unions that make the V.A. dysfunctional.