EDITORIAL: Privatization won't solve problems plaguing Department of Veterans Affairs

York Dispatch
  • David Shulkin was recently fired as the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
  • Shulkin said he was fired because of political forces who want to privatize the VA.
  • Shulkin said privatizing the VA would put profits ahead of patient care.

According to the most recent U.S. Census figures, there are more than 32,000 veterans right here in York County.

There are 9 million vets in our nation.

David Shulkin was recently fired as the Veteran Affairs Secretary, but he did not go quietly.  (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

Those men and women, who served and protected us, should get the best possible health care we can provide them. They’ve earned that right.

Unfortunately, the massive Department of Veterans Affairs has been in crisis for decades. Our second-largest federal department (behind only the Defense Department) has long suffered from a myriad of red-tape issues, leading to delays and snafus that cause serious inconvenience and even harm to our nation’s veterans.

With 360,000 employees, it can be a logistical nightmare to manage. As a result, it’s often difficult to find qualified individuals to run the VA, because it’s seen as a bureaucratic black hole where political careers go to die.

The problems at the VA certainly didn’t start under Donald Trump, but he has done little to alleviate the issues.

The mess hits the fan: The VA mess, however, really grabbed the headlines on Wednesday, March 28, when Trump, in a tweet, fired David Shulkin as VA secretary.

That firing was not undeserved.

Shulkin’s ethics came into question recently. A highly critical report by the inspector general’s office (a non-partisan internal watchdog) concluded that he had violated ethics rules by accepting free Wimbledon tennis tickets. The inspector general also found Shulkin’s chief of staff had doctored emails to justify bringing Shulkin’s wife to Europe with him at taxpayer expense.

Those ethical lapses put Shulkin in Trump’s crosshairs, and after leaving him twist in the wind awhile (a Trump specialty), Trump fired Shulkin by tweet (another Trump specialty).

Trump’s nominee to replace Shulkin is Ronny Jackson, a Navy rear admiral and his White House doctor. Jackson’s thin management experience is already drawing heavy criticism, especially for such a challenging position.

Fired VA secretary says privatization advocates doomed him

Not leaving quietly: Shulkin, meanwhile, did not leave quietly. He immediately went on the offensive, saying he was the victim of "political forces" that he says are bent on privatizing the agency and putting "companies with profits" over the care of veterans.

Shulkin, the lone Obama administration holdover in Trump's Cabinet, blasted a "toxic" and "subversive" environment in Washington that made it impossible for him to lead.

It would be easy to dismiss Shulkin’s accusations as mere sour grapes. Given his ethical misdeeds, his credibility is certainly not sterling. In addition, his management of the agency was often lacking, and many VA employees were reportedly not sad to see him go.

Privatization not the answer: Still, we need to take his comments seriously, because Shulkin is right about one thing — privatizing the VA would severely damage an already struggling agency. More importantly, it would likely reduce the mediocre level of care our veterans are already receiving, and that is simply unacceptable.

Under privatization, profit, not proper care, would become the No. 1 priority.

The White House rejected Shulkin's assertions that it was seeking to privatize the agency.

We would like to take Trump at his word, but given his sporadic relationship with the truth, we remain skeptical.

A statement by White House spokesman Raj Shah only raised that level of skepticism: “We look forward to continuing our work with Congress to reform and strengthen the VA Choice program to provide our veterans with more choice in their health care."

“Choice” is often a code word for privatization. Major veterans groups and Democrats stand opposed to an aggressive expansion of “choice,” seeing the effort as a potential threat to the viability of VA medical centers on which our veterans rely.

OPED: A strong VA is essential for our national security

Debate will rage on: The privatization debate won’t end anytime soon. Many conservatives see the private sector as the answer to every problem — and there’s no debating that the VA has many problems.

Reform, not privatization, is the answer to the VA's problems. It will most likely take decades to make any real inroads, given the size and scope of the issues at hand.

It will also take a president with an iron will and a VA secretary who relishes a challenge.

Unfortunately, under the current administration, neither scenario seems likely.