Despite all the rhetoric about supporting our troops, the assistance they receive back home is woefully lacking. And this is especially true when it comes to the agency tasked with caring for them: Veterans Affairs.
Although criticism of the VA has come from both sides of the aisle, conservatives have long argued that the agency’s shortcomings are the result of a bloated government bureaucracy. Their suggested solution of privatization began to be implemented under Obama.
Beginning in 2014, two private contractors — Health Net and TriWest Healthcare Alliance — were awarded $2 billion in contracts to take charge of expanding medical services for veterans, as well as assisting in administrative tasks.
In the four years since this privatization effort began, Veterans Affairs data shows that, contrary to what was promised, veterans have been spending even greater amounts of time waiting for appointments. While the Veterans Choice Program has processed nearly 2 million veterans, it has failed to get patients to doctors in time as required by the law. It’s also continued to make embarrassing mistakes, including sending veterans to the wrong specialists and scheduling appointments at clinics on the other side of the country.
At the same time, costs have gone up. A joint analysis by ProPublica and PolitiFact found that, on average, the VA was paying contractors roughly $300 for every patient they referred to a doctor. And although this high rate was attributed to the swift implementation of the program, this fee remained largely unchanged over four years. To be clear, this fee wasn’t for the doctor’s visit itself, merely the processing
Perhaps just as problematic is how these contractors are using $2 billion in federal government funding for overhead. Almost one-quarter of this amount was being pocketed as profit — and even four years later, that figure stands at 21 percent of its total funding.
By comparison, the private health insurance sector elsewhere tends to allocate no more than 12 percent of its overhead to profits. And the Defense Departments’ health care program, Tricare, spends just 8 percent this way.
Just as importantly, what is happening in the Veterans Choice Program is quite possibly illegal. The Affordable Care Act — which, like Veterans Choice, uses taxpayer funds to subsidize private medical services — explicitly caps overhead at 15 percent for group insurance plans.
What these private contractors are doing is little more than swindling American taxpayers and pocketing resources that could be used to actually support veterans in a meaningful way. And this hasn’t been lost on those who head up the VA.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie admits his department was “ taken advantage of “ — but, instead of laying fault upon the contractors, he attributed the high expenses to the program being hastily set up.
Despite these problems, the VA plans to continue down a path of privatization. Acting health chief Steven L. Lieberman says he and the VA are “really pleased” with the Veterans Choice Program and stated that there are plans to hand out new contracts over the next couple months.
Veterans Affairs was far from the most efficient and effective agency in federal government, but these problems have only been exacerbated in the four years since privatization efforts began. Now Trump-appointed VA officials plan to continue privatization programs, despite acknowledging that private contractors are robbing taxpayers blind,
Originally published at Care2.com on Jan. 10, 2019.