Roe: Congress not trying to privatize VA

Nathan Baker • Apr 4, 2018 at 11:51 PM

U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, the chairman of the House Committee on Veteran Affairs, dismissed concerns Wednesday of a governmental push to privatize veterans’ medical care, most recently voiced last week by outgoing VA Secretary David Shulkin.

“If we’re trying to privatize, we’re not doing a very good job,” the Johnson City Republican said. “We’ve gone from 250,000 employees in the VA in 2009 to 370,000 employees, and we’ve gone from a $93.5 billion budget to what the president’s asked this year is $198 billion. It sounds like we’ve been an utter failure if we’re trying to privatize.”

However, Roe said changes at the VA are necessary to streamline its operations. He pointed specifically to a proposal under consideration by his committee to make permanent and change the requirements of the Veterans Choices Program, which allows some veterans to seek care from private doctors.

“It’s gotta change, there’s no question,” he said. “You can’t continue with the model it is, it’s too wasteful, and it doesn’t meet today’s modern needs, but that doesn’t mean you’re privatizing anything, it means you’re changing it as the private sector’s already doing.”

The Veterans Choices Program was created by Congress four years ago when America learned some veterans were waiting months for care and administrators were altering records to hide the long wait times. Dozens of them died while waiting.

Under the program, veterans who wait more than 30 days for care or who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility may visit private professionals outside the system, paid for by the federal government.

The plan backed by Roe would make the program permanent and remove the wait time and geographical requirements.

Some lawmakers and veterans groups worry the changes could drain federal funds from the VA system into the private sector, resulting in declining quality of care.

The American Legion, the country’s largest veterans service organization, has opposed making the Choice program permanent, and its leaders have asked lawmakers to only rely on outside care when medically necessary.

Roe said rumors of attempts by Congress to covertly privatize veterans’ care were being used by Democrats to sabotage meaningful legislation and hurt the president’s reputation.

“This is what I believe, I believe the president has been very fortunate in passing along a lot of positive reforms for our veterans, and I saw a bill get blown up, I believe, for political reasons in an omnibus debate,” he said. “I believe part of this intrigue is I don’t think the Democrats want the president to have any more wins than he’s had with the VA, which have been amazing.”

Last week, it was Secretary Shulkin warning of political appointees within President Donald Trump’s administration pushing for privatization of the VA.

“These individuals, who seek to privatize veteran health care as an alternative to government-run VA care, unfortunately fail to engage in realistic plans regarding who will care for the more than 9 million veterans who rely on the department of life-sustaining care,” Shulkin wrote in a March 28 op-ed piece in the New York Times.

“The private sector, already struggling to provide adequate access to care in many communities, is ill-prepared to handle the number and complexity of patients that would come from closing or downsizing VA hospitals and clinics, particularly when it involves the mental health needs of people scarred by the horrors of war.”

Shulkin insisted he was pushed from his position by pressure from these pro-privatization forces. Since his departure the White House first said he “resigned from his position,” then that he was offered “the opportunity to resign.”

Roe said he couldn’t comment on the circumstances leading up to Shulkin’s leaving the agency, calling it “palace intrigue,” and saying he wasn’t aware of the reason for the personnel change.

When he returns to Washington after a tour of the First District, Roe said he intends to meet with the president’s nomination to fill the Cabinet position, White House physician Ronny Jackson, a Navy rear admiral who served as doctor for presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and now Trump.

Roe said concerns about Jackson’s lack of experience as a hospital system and federal agency administrator may not be much of a problem, as he likely has managed hospitals on his rise to rear admiral and he could choose expert staff to help him.

The change in leadership, however, could slow progress on the Veterans Choice Program proposals, he said.

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