By Brett Copeland, Executive Director Veterans Healthcare Policy Institute
“In the years after my military service in Iraq, I have walked the few blocks from my apartment to the Manhattan Veterans Affairs Medical Center hundreds of times to see my healthcare providers,” wrote Essam Attia in an op-ed at The Indypendent. “As I shelter-in-place in the American epicenter of the world’s worst pandemic in 100 years, I am, however, worried the VA will be unable to fulfill its missions to care for future generations of veterans or serve civilian sector patients in a national emergency.”
Attia joined Suzanne Gordon on the America’s Heroes Group with Cliff Kelley on May 16 to discuss the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on veterans, and the future of veterans’ healthcare amid an historic staff shortage at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
For years, the VA’s Veterans Health Administration has faced privatization attacks from for-profit healthcare leaders as well as lawmakers.
Suzanne Gordon, a journalist and author, spent five years inside the VA documenting its unique healthcare delivery programs as well as the efforts to privatize the agency. In her two books, Wounds of War and The Battle for Veterans Healthcare, Gordon uncovers why the VA – the closest thing the U.S. has to a national health care system – is so important to veterans and how it benefits everyone. But several recent pieces of legislation threaten to dismantle the system.
“The MISSION Act has only made things worse,” Attia said. “Because so much money and energy has been devoted to sending veterans to the private sector, there has been little left to fill the 50,000 vacancies at the Veterans Health Administration.”
Gordon has also coauthored a report “The VA Vacancy Crisis” on the VA’s 50,000 staff vacancies on behalf of the Veterans Healthcare Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that studies ways to improve veterans’ healthcare.
“In interviews, scores of VHA staff have described the many challenges that make it more and more difficult for them to care for some of the nation’s most complex patients,” Gordon writes with her co-author, Jasper Craven. “They told us about short staffing, anemic budgets, poor – and even punitive – management practices, and, sometimes, even downright hostility from high level administrators, the media, and Congress.”
The VHPI team reached out to the Trump administration several times for comment on these issues, but the VA did not reply to any of the inquiries.
“[The Choice program and MISSION ACT] process was supposed to be both hassle-free and free of charge and I was supposed to get high-quality care in the private sector. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie assured veterans that the VA wouldn’t be privatized and I’d still be able to get the same quality of care I’d received for the past 12 years,” said Attia. “That’s not quite how it worked out.”
Attia says that since the MISSION Act was passed, his wait times for appointments have increased and his non-VA health providers have shown a lack of expertise about veteran-specific conditions.
“Private sector doctors…don’t really understand military culture or veterans’ specific healthcare problems,” said Attia. “If an Iraq veteran like myself complains of respiratory problems, they don’t think of burn pits, they think of run of the mill asthma. If a female veteran is having nightmares, they may not ask about Military Sexual Trauma (MST), they may prescribe Ambien.
“In all my years of getting VA care, I’ve paid a very minimal co-pay,” wrote Attia. “When I used my Choice card a couple of years ago, I ended up having to pay $1,500 out of pocket for a service the VA could have provided at no charge.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and unemployment continues to rise, more veterans will likely seek care from the Veterans Health Administration just as they did after the 2008 financial collapse. But it’s unclear whether the Trump administration is committed to strengthening the VA or filling much-needed staffing vacancies.
Read the full VHPI report at www.veteranspolicy.org/vacancycrisis.