WASHINGTON — A left-leaning veterans advocacy group today is reopening the fight over privatization of Veterans Affairs services with a multi-state ad campaign imploring lawmakers to “save VA.”
The nearly $400,000 effort comes as top VA officials and congressional leaders are preparing to unveil their long-term plans for the department’s controversial Choice program, which allows veterans to seek private-sector care using federal dollars.
The program has been a frequent target of critics who accuse conservatives of working to undermine VA funding and services, by outsourcing core government responsibilities to provide health care to veterans.
But supporters — including President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly promised to expand current Choice offerings — say the outside care options are critical to providing faster, less cumbersome medical access for veterans, and avoiding long wait times at VA facilities.
The ad campaign by VoteVets Action Fund does not mention the Choice program by name but warns watchers “don’t let Trump privatize my VA.” The group, which has worked closely with a number of Democratic outreach and election efforts, argues that moving more veterans outside the federally-funded health care system will erode its effectiveness and value.
“We’re doing this because we want to make sure people know the true story at VA,” said Will Fischer, VoteVets director of government relations and an Iraq War veteran. “The other side is interested in making money off of veterans and privatizing anything and everything.”
That’s a charge that VA Secretary David Shulkin has repeatedly denied, in congressional testimony and numerous media interviews.
Currently, about one-third of veterans medical appointments paid for by VA are conducted by physicians outside the department. White House officials have requested $13.2 billion in outside care spending for fiscal 2018, about one-fifth of the total funding requested for veterans health services.
Shulkin has pushed for significant changes to the Choice program, including changing eligibility criteria to open the program to more veterans. Choice funding is expected to run out early next year, and Shulkin has promised the replacement — the Coordinated Access and Rewarding Experiences program, or Veterans CARE — will be “a program that’s easy to understand, simple to administer and meets (veterans) needs.”
The criteria, cost and potential impacts on other programs have not yet been released.
Republican leaders on Capitol Hill have also repeatedly promised not to look at “privatizing VA,” but have taken criticism from Democratic colleagues for a host of policy suggestions that some fear could be the first steps towards eroding department resources.
Fischer said he hopes viewers of the ads help push for improvements to the VA system instead of moving more outside it.
Just extending the Choice program another six months became a contentious debate earlier this summer, with several prominent veterans groups lobbying for additional funds for VA facilities in conjunction with $2.1 billion in Choice money. That fight is likely to resume again this fall if groups see plans to pull money from existing VA programs for private-sector payments.
Meanwhile, supporters of outside care expansion have also been increasing their outreach in recent weeks.
Officials from Concerned Veterans for America, which has ties to conservative groups and have been among the most vocal supporters of reforming and broadening the Choice program, has released a series of op-eds and policy positions arguing that too many veterans face significant waits for basic health needs within VA.
“Every veteran should have the choice to use their health care benefits in the private sector, especially if the VA is unable to provide them with quality care in a timely manner,” CVA Policy Director Dan Caldwell said in a statement late last month.
The VoteVets ads will be airing in Alaska, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia. They’re also available online.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.