Veterans and employees of local Veterans Affairs Health Centers held a protest Wednesday urging lawmakers to “stop privatization” of VA health care facilities.
The protest comes as a congressional panel considers reorganizing the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). The panel, called the Commission on Care, will assess how to provide health care to veterans over the next 20 years. The final report and recommendations are currently being drafted.
A draft document floated by seven commissioners aimed to reduce VA provided care and increase private sector services for veterans.
About 10 protesters chanted “Who are we? VA! What are we here for? Veterans!” standing across from the VA Health Care center on Tyvola Road.
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A bill drafted by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., calls for providing veterans “access to private health insurance plans” and creation of a “Veterans Accountable Care Organization,” to increase accountability in the VHA.
A similar bill in the Senate was co-sponsored by Charlotte Republican Thom Tillis. The bill aims to expand on the Veterans Choice program, which was introduced last year to let any veteran use private providers under certain conditions.
Under the bill co-sponsored by Tillis, veterans could obtain treatment at walk-in clinics without pre-authorization or a co-payment. Pharmacy hours would be expanded to include nights and weekends.
Paralyzed Veterans of America says on its website that the legislation would push veterans to leave the VA system of care, but does not address the capability of the private sector to provide comparable quality.
Essie Hogue, president of the state chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), urged citizens to call their congressional representatives to vote against any measure to privatize the VHA.
Some of the proposals discussed by the Commission on Care included closing down of underutilized facilities and a plan to transfer all patients to community care over the next 20 years. “The VA will become primarily a payer,” according to one of the proposals.
However, the scenario presented in the draft document was only one among a range of options the commissioners are considering, said the commission’s chairperson, Nancy Schlichting, in a statement.
Among the protesters Wednesday was Jerry Miller, a law enforcement officer at the VA medical center in Salisbury. He said the VA understands veterans’ needs better than private hospitals. Veterans, he said, fight for their country, but when they come back to civilian life they’re not the same. “It takes people who know vets well to understand what they’re going through,” he said, referring to the VA.
“There are 58,000 veterans in Mecklenburg County,” said Mecklenburg County commissioner Pat Cotham, who also joined the protest. “I’m the daughter of a World War II veteran and the sister of a Vietnam veteran. We need to invest in the continuing care of our veterans because they stood up for us.”
Some veterans groups such as Concerned Veterans for America support legislation such as Rodgers’ bill for providing increased provider choice. “Veterans are mostly forced to rely on one hospital and one provider,” said Dan Caldwell, the group’s vice president for legislative and political action. “And wait times have gone up significantly at VA hospitals.”
The Veterans Choice program lets veterans get care from private providers if they face long wait times at VA hospitals. “But they still have to call a VA bureaucrat to get approval,” said Caldwell. “We want true choice that takes the VA bureaucrat out of the picture.”