HOW YEARS OF POLITICAL INACTION AND IDEOLOGICAL ATTACKS THRUST THE VA INTO THE WORST VACANCY CRISIS IN AMERICAN GOVERNMENT - AND HOW TO FIX IT
By Brett W. Copeland VHPI Executive Director When we commissioned the report, The VA’s Vacancy Crisis last year, no one predicted that a pandemic would sweep across the globe. COVID-19 has exposed what many of us at the Veterans Healthcare Policy Institute have long-suspected: America’s private healthcare system is fragile and the Veterans Health Administration, with all its flaws, is a system worth emulating and reproducing for all Americans.
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“Unfortunate” does not adequately describe the level of malfeasance and negligence that a bipartisan cast of characters has pushed on the nation’s veterans for more than a decade. Although the department’s staffing crisis first gained national exposure with the Phoenix wait list scandal in 2014, problems at the VA had been brewing since the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. Going to war was debated, planned, and executed. Caring for the war-wounded was not.
While politicians have long used veterans for political gain, corporate healthcare giants are now similarly using veterans to pad their pockets. The result of this cynical work is a world-class veterans system dismantled in troubling ways.
If there’s a villain in this story, it’s the individuals who hobbled the system and then profited off that dysfunction – people like former House Veterans Affairs Committee Chair Jeff Miller, who now reaps the benefits of his policies passed in Congress as a high-powered, highly-paid healthcare lobbyist.
And the heroes of this story – unrecognized for far too long – are now getting the coverage they deserve in their noble fight against COVID-19. Frontline healthcare workers at the VA are staying on the job to care for veterans. They’re also blowing the whistle on leaders who have failed to meet their responsibility to prepare for this moment, protect veterans, or give health care workers the tools they need. And as of May 3, more than 2,250 had contracted COVID-19 and 20 employees have died.
The heroes also include the veterans who are supporting each other as peer specialists, VA volunteers, VA employees, or simply supporting each other in a time of social isolation using their own informal networks and VA tools and telehealth resources.
The heroes are the private sector healthcare workers who are working against great odds. Many of their private health care systems they work for were built to make a profit – not handle a pandemic. Many were laid off when elective procedures were halted. Many faced their own staff shortages, lack of personal protective equipment, and other on-the-job dangers and trials long before this pandemic. But many do not have a worker representative, like employees at the VA do, to tell their stories without fear of reprisal. We don’t know how many have died from COVID-19, as private sector healthcare providers are not required to track or report those numbers publicly.
So - who then in this report are the ones in need of saving? It’s the rest of us. If the VA is not mended; if we forget what the VA once was; if we forget what the VA must be, Americans will lose the last best example of what an integrated healthcare system looks like in practice and success.
We will lose a research powerhouse that cures disease and innovates – one whose innovations automatically belong to all of us, not a group of shareholders.
It’s not too late to restore veterans’ health care for all of America’s patriots including those who work outside the VA system. We just need to continually monitor and pressure the politicians who created the crisis and reform the agency in a way that makes it more – not less – able to deal with today’s as well as emerging, as well as emerging, healthcare needs.