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THE FACTS: Just over a year ago, a scandal at a hospital facility in Phoenix, Arizona, rocked the Department of Veterans Affairs and forced the resignation of its secretary, retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki. Long wait times for appointments, secret wait lists, and a backlog of disability claims plagued the massive federal agency. Robert McDonald, the former chief executive of Procter & Gamble, now leads the VA and its more than 300,000 employees. Ultimately, the VA comprises the largest integrated healthcare system in the United States. But is the burden of bureaucracy too much? Should the government privatize the VA?
Michael Breen President and CEO, Truman Project and CenterU.S. Army, 2002-2006@M_Breen
The VA is a 20th century institution in desperate need of modernization and reform. Mismanagement and indignities suffered by veterans make for cheap political fodder on both sides of the aisle because they provoke legitimate outrage. Yet as is the case with many solutions that sound too good to be true, privatization would make the situation for our nation's veterans far worse.
Many veterans have injuries — physical and mental — atypical of civilian life, and they need the expertise of the doctors and nurses trained specifically by the VA. Individuals seeking treatment benefit from this specialized knowledge, and the medical field sees real results from funded and organized research into conditions like traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress. Replacing this coordination with competition means that resources will be harder to come by and solutions will be harder to share.
Moreover, privatization would leave our veterans at the mercy of the markets, and we should not gamble with their health or well-being. One need look no further than for-profit "colleges" and predatory lenders for recent examples of how unscrupulous enterprises target veterans. With accountability already in dangerously short supply, it seems extremely unlikely that oversight would increase under a privately owned and operated system.
There is a lot of work to do at the VA; a single veteran waiting for healthcare is one too many. But modernization, not privatization, should be at the core of our efforts: standardizing medical record systems, facilitating interagency communication, and holding all employees accountable are all essential. Anything less would be a betrayal of the pact that the United States government made with those who served. The promise to care for our veterans should not be a casualty of today's anti-government political climate.
The solution isn't buck passing or tough talk — it's building a better VA.
Michael Breen is the President and CEO of the Truman Project and a former U.S. Army officer who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Matthew Randle Owner/Attorney, The Law Office of Matthew Randle, PLLCU.S. Army, 1998-2003@MatthewRandle
I'm not advocating for total privatization, I'm advocating to partially privatize a bureaucracy that has lost the ability to care for the people it exists to serve.
The VA isn't all bad; there are areas better handled at the VA than anywhere. Mental health, prosthetics, traumatic brain injury, social services for substance addicted, or homeless veterans — these are areas where the VA excels.
The provision of primary care, surgery, dentistry, optometry, and many other areas seem to be more than an incredibly funded VA can manage. During the Obama presidency, the annual VA budget has risen $65.9 billion a year, now reaching the absurd amount of $150.7 billion in fiscal year 2014.
The president appointed Bob McDonald to stop this waste after mismanagement killed veterans in Phoenix, Arizona, despite an enormous budget. McDonald was seen as the perfect candidate to turn things around because of his experience running an enormous private corporation. Faced with the restraints of federal bureaucracy, McDonald can't even fire the bad actors responsible for killing people and covering it up; he can't sell unoccupied buildings; and can't hire people because of congressional infighting. Oddly, the people McDonald keeps nominating are private sector executives who made their mark operating in the free market.
The VA faces no competition, the bad actors face no repercussions, and the status quo continues to be rewarded. The president has spent $235.4 billion more than his predecessor on the VA and we are at best in the same position as before.
Putting veterans in control of their care, letting them choose based on the quality of care they receive, and letting the market dictate good care is a far better use of taxpayer dollars, and certainly a far more effective way to ensure veterans are getting the care this nation promised.
Matthew Randle served as a medic in the Army from 1998-2003 and was a part of the invasion force in Iraq.