The Battle For Veterans’ Healthcare

by Denny Riley on May 18, 2017

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One million five hundred thousand men and women are currently on active duty in the U.S. military. Another eight hundred and twenty thousand serve in our reserve forces. And there are twenty two million veterans. We make a big show of welcoming home these men and women and thanking them for their service, but a push is well under way in Washington to deny them the healthcare they were promised when they enlisted or were commissioned.

Suzanne Gordon’s new book, The Battle for Veterans Healthcare, reports on this campaign by a few very wealthy Americans and the politicians they influence. Their goal is to dismantle the Veterans Healthcare Administrations (VHA) and turn over the annual sixty eight billion dollar plus budget to private, sometimes for- profit healthcare companies where multi-million dollar CEO salaries are not uncommon. Millions of veterans would be forced to navigate a labyrinth of private healthcare providers who, as the studies Gordon cites document, have no expertise in the particular and specialized health needs of veterans.

Three years ago, Gordon began doing research on the healthcare system that serves military veterans. Gordon is an award-winning journalist whose eighteen published books are about healthcare, patient safety, nursing, and teamwork. These are subjects that may not immediately excite a reader perusing the shelves of a bookstore yet they are matters of vital interest to everybody everywhere. What should be of similar interest is not only our personal safety but that of the men and women who serve to protect us.

Gordon intended to write a book on “the innovative clinical care and treatment models that the VHA has developed.” Among the many VHA innovations and inventions are the implantable cardiac pacemaker, CAT scans, the nicotine patch, the first successful liver transplant, the use of low dose aspirin regimen to prevent heart attacks, and prosthetic technology to help restore the sense of touch for those who have lost an upper limb or use and artificial hand. All of this was done on the VHA research budget where there is no profit incentive, no patents to file, and all discoveries are made available to all Americans.

As Gordon reveals, the VHA functions very differently than the healthcare system depicted in most mainstream media coverage. The VHA healthcare system of 150 hospitals, 819 clinics, 300 mental health centers, which employs 250,000 people (a third of whom are veterans themselves) sees 230,000 patients a day. Gordon describes the problems that occur in the nation’s largest and only publicly funded fully integrated healthcare system because of continual budgetary constraints imposed by conservatives in Congress. The irony, she points out, is that under-funding causes problems which conservative politicians who are responsible for the revenue shortfall then use to publicly malign the VHA and, by extension, its employees.

“The main opponents of the VHA are Republicans in Congress – the very legislators who go to great lengths to demonstrate their support for Americans in uniform,” Gordon writes. “But when vets return home and are hidden from view, the right short-changes their care.” She also compares what the news media (she quotes from New York Times articles, among others) reports about the VHA with studies published by RAND, PEW, MITRE and JAMA. These scientific studies reveal that VHA outperforms private healthcare in many ways, and is marginally worse in only a few. Plus the VHA provides excellent healthcare to veterans for 21% less than it would cost in the private sector.

As Gordon notes, President Donald Trump has refused to seriously consult with any real Veterans Service Organizations, such as VFW, DAV, and VVA. He did meet with, and continues to consult, representatives of the Koch Brothers’ financed Concerned Veterans for America (CVA), and with top executives of the private healthcare industry, the people who would benefit most by the dismantling of the VHA. Throughout The Battle For Veterans’ Healthcare, the reader hears the drumbeat of an impending national calamity if veterans lose what they have in the VHA where the caregivers (a third of them veterans themselves) are with veterans every day so know their special needs. These caregivers recognize the possibility of polytrauma, or Agent Orange related health problems, or PTSD.  Because private providers do not see as many veterans, they might miss the necessary diagnosis and fail to recommend the very treatment that the country who sent the veteran to war promised to deliver upon his or her return. As a Vietnam War veteran who has depended on VHA services for years, this is the kind of care the VHA is proud and pleased to deliver. Although Gordon’s book is grounded in scientific and medical data, it is not only a very comprehensible read, but a proverbial “must read.”

Denny Riley is a Vietnam veteran, a writer and member of Fighting for Veterans’ Healthcare, a San Francisco based group of veterans and caregivers fighting to improve and strength the Veterans Health Administration.

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