Disband and Replace the Veterans Affairs Department?

May 10, 2014; San Antonio Express-News

Just the other day, Senator Bernie Sanders warned that Republicans would try to make hay out of the expanding scandal of fudged waitlists at VA hospitals and clinics to try to privatize the VA system. He’s right; it’s happening.

In the San Antonio Express-News, George Block, identified as the chairman of the board of San Antonio Sports and Voices for Children, argues that “at one time, the VA had a purpose” due to the average hospital’s inexperience years back with treating patients with the physical and psychological challenges of veterans of war. He suggests that times have changed and typical urban hospitals can do what VA hospitals do. He further argues that the financial argument for the VA can’t be justified, that veterans could be offered “Gold Level” insurance coverage to replace their VA medical benefits, essentially incorporating veterans healthcare into the national healthcare system—the ACA or otherwise.

“Small government Republicans should be standing up and shouting for the VA to be closed,” Block writes, confirming the Sanders prediction.

However, he throws an incentive to nonprofits to buy into the concept. “A nationwide system of nonprofits has sprung up in the last 20 years as a result of the VA’s failure to provide timely or comprehensive services,” Block says. “These organizations are grossly underfunded, but doing heroic work. Closing the VA and diverting funds to these nonprofits would allow them to grow to scale and provide the level of services that they have always aspired to provide.”

Whether or not General Eric Shinseki has done a good or bad job overall at the helm of the VA or whether he has mishandled the expanding VA hospital scheduling crisis isn’t really the issue. It is now a matter of whether this latest VA crisis, on the heels of well documented problems in the VA regarding backlogs for veterans to receive disability benefits and other VA services, has revealed a fundamental problem in the agency’s ability to deliver on its mission. Just because the VA exists doesn’t mean that it has to exist; just because there are problems in the VA system doesn’t automatically justify a reversion to the Republican default position of turning to the private sector.

While no major veterans organization has called for the elimination of the VA itself, two have called for Shinseki’s resignation—the American Legion and the Concerned Veterans of America. Neither organization has called for doing away with the VA overall. The current crisis and the responses of Shinseki and others in the VA’s top leadership have attracted more significant and influential critics than George Block of San Antonio to the suggestion that the solution may be a replacement of the VA. For example, Newt Gingrich wrote last week, “The entire VA model needs to be replaced. The current system is an obsolete, paper-based bureaucracy incapable of serving America’s veterans.”

Late last week, Senator John McCain (R-VA) held a field hearing to hear the complaints of Arizona veterans. (Phoenix was the first of the VA hospital sites where a whistleblower alleged veterans had died while waiting for appointments.) He had to face a gathering of veterans who were suspicious that the problems of the VA could be remedied. One veteran, Chuck Burns, from Gilbert, AZ, testified that in his view, “the VA healthcare system is broken.” The frustration of all of the veterans at the hearing was palpable. But McCain, a Republican, said at the Phoenix hearing, “I think it would be terrible if we did away with the VA”.

Will nonprofits join the sub rosa call for the replacement of the VA and its being carved up and turned over to charity service delivers?–Rick Cohen