The VA released its proposal to restructure the current Veteran’s Choice Program. The proposal, the Veterans’ Coordinated Access, and Rewarding Experiences (CARE) Act suggests eliminating the current eligibility requirements that veterans must meet to qualify for care in the private sector.
Under the current Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014, veterans must live 40 miles away from VA facility or wait 30 days or longer to receive care.
“We want veterans to work with their VA physicians to make informed decisions that are best for their clinical needs, whether in VA or in the community, and this bill does just that while strengthening VA services at the same time,” VA Secretary David Shulkin said.
However, the American Federal of Government Employees (AFGE) isn’t thrilled. “This is a step to dismantle, privatize, [and] to avoid hiring these 49,000 vacancies,” AFGE President J. David Cox said.
AFGE has been making a push to raise awareness of the tens of thousands of open positions at VA. “As these vacancies are plaguing the agency nationwide, Congress and the administration are busy patting themselves on the back for eliminating veteran’s rights at work,” Cox said.
AFGE also expressed opposition to the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, passed earlier this year, which gives the VA secretary the authority to expedite the review on VA executives’ disciplinary appeals without the Merit System Protection Board. They argued the bill would unravel due process rights for VA employees.
According to the VA, the department has fewer vacancies now. As of September 29, there were 35,345 total full-time equivalent vacancies. Shulkin said he thought the law would improve morale and wouldn’t hinder the departments’ ability to fill vacancies. He said the hiring problem is the biggest challenge facing the department.
AFGE says leaving those vacancies unfilled is “irresponsible” and questioned whether the department is publicly posting those open job positions.
Cox also agrees the department should consolidate the many community care programs that currently exist into one. However, AFGE fears that eliminating eligibility rules will pave the way for a VA “voucher” system for private health care.
Lawmakers have frequently said they’re not interested in privatizing VA health care. “Somebody saying they’re not interested in privatizing the VA and their actions to privatize the VA don’t always match up,” Will Fischer, government relations director for VoteVets, said. “You’re going to hear people say all the time, “Oh, I’m not trying to destroy and privatize the VA.’ Yet they’re going to want to privatize just this little piece over here.”
The VA draft also includes:
- Proposals for “new workforce tools” to recruit and retain VA medical professionals
- Business process changes to improve financial management for community care programs
- Provisions that would strengthen VA’s real property management authority
Congress is also debating legislation that would authorize a BRAC-like commission to realign and close some outdated and vacant VA medical facilities. AFGE believes this proposal for the VA is wrong. “The VA does not need BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure). If the VA has outdated buildings, as there are at some facilities, then yes, those buildings need to be dealt with, maybe they need to be demolished and a new building built. The private sector constantly tears down old parts of its’ hospitals or clinics and builds new ones. A BRAC is wrong. It’s dead wrong.”