Local union workers and veterans protest VA privatization

Wednesday, June 22, 2016 - 6:37pm

About 50 veterans, union employees and family members gathered at the Ann Arbor Veterans Affairs Hospital Wednesday to protest the proposed federal privatization of veteran health care. The protest was organized by the American Federation of Labor and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).

The protest was one of many scheduled across the country this week. In Michigan alone, groups have held or plan to hold prostests of similar intent in Battle Creek, Detroit and Lansing.

Local AFGE President Ozzie James Jr. cited the congressional Commission on Care — which, following its formation in 2014, aims to develop recommendations to improve veterans' health care — as the culprit for the veterans' discontent. The commission is expected to recommend greater privatization of VA health services.

“They’re going to be assessing the health care of Veteran’s Affairs compared to the private sector,” James said.  “They want to privatize the VA medical centers; we’re here today to say ‘No!' ”

Amie Pounds, a national organizer for AFGE, and James Jr. agreed that the congressional commission’s assessments have been not only inaccurate but also swayed by private corporations’ profit interests. According to Pounds, of the 15 members on the commission, not one can be linked to a mainstream veterans service organization. Rather, the panel is comprised of primarily private hospital executives who stand only to benefit financially from privatizing the VA.

“They’re Koch Brother employees, big CEOs for Henry Ford or work for the Cleveland Clinic — they have a vested interest in getting their fingers in the VA’s health care pocket book,” Pounds said, referring to the congressional commission. “Can you imagine dumping 6.6 million veterans into the private sector? It would be a medical tsunami.”

“What’s unfortunate about all this is the problems that have been identified in the VA are no different from than what are in the private sectors,” Pounds added. “It’s just that because the VA is funded by public the dollar it rises to the level of meeting the public eye.”

Pounds also asserted that privatization would raise costs for taxpayers, noting that there would be no cap on what private care providers can charge for veterans’ care.

“This is the largest and longest running health care provider in this country — and they want to dismantle it?” Pounds asked. “It will be pure chaos if they follow through with this.”

James Jr. felt that the Commission on Care should be responsible for consulting veteran advocacy groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars USA, the American Legion and Disabled American Veterans in moving forward on plans to privatize the nation-wide medical program.

Among the protesters were also numerous veterans. Ann Arbor resident Steve Gulick, a member of the 82nd Airborne Division during the Vietnam War, said the private sector was out of touch with intricacies of care required by veterans like himself.

“Veterans deserve and need different care than civilians do, and that’s why these VA hospitals are here,” Gulick said. “If there was shared sacrifice where everybody served, they’d understand that. But when less than one percent actually serves, there's a lapse in understanding over help needs.”

Gulick feared that the quality of service he and his fellow veterans have come to appreciate will be compromised if turned over to the private sector.

Bob King, a veteran who served two years in the Korean War, felt that veterans are too often ignored and neglected in the eyes of policymakers. While he admitted the VA was in no way perfect, he said it, for the most part, has provided him with the services he needed.

“In every human institution, there are problems,” King said. “You don’t use those problems as an excuse for somebody else to make profit out of it — you fix whatever the problems are ... Veterans sacrifice their lives, sacrifice their bodies, lose limbs — all kinds of things they’re affiliated with because they served our country. Our country has a moral responsibility to take care of our veterans.”