Medical Advocate: Senate VA Bill Would 'Protect Union Jobs, Not Ailing Vets'

June 12, 2014 - 11:27 AM

Veterans Health Care

VA Health Care Center in Harlingen, Texas. (AP Photo/Valley Morning Star, David Pike)

(CNSNews.com) – The founder and chair of a group dedicated to reducing hospital infection deaths told the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Thursday that a bill backed by the Senate Wednesday to address the backlog of veterans awaiting medical care “is designed to protect union jobs, not ailing vets.”

The bill drafted by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, “will not save the lives of vets stuck on the wait list,” said Dr. Betsy McCaughey, chair of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths. “This bill as currently written is designed to protect union jobs, not ailing vets.”

McCaughey, former lieutenant governor of New York state, complained that the VA “is run largely by unions and for unions.”

“One of the culprits is this 316-page union contract full of mind-numbing rules that prevent assigning an employee to a new task, a new work shift, a new building, or reprimanding someone on the staff for misdeeds or just poor performance,” she said.

McCaughey said the unions fought a $9.3 billion initiative unveiled nine months ago that would give vets on waiting lists access to civilian care, “but the unions fought it as hard as they could.”

“The American Federation of Government Employees labeled it in their newsletter, The Worker, an attempt to dismantle the VA brick by brick. That’s not true, but they vilified it that way,” she said.

The bill approved on Wednesday “sabotages the ability of vets to access civilian care in three ways,” McCaughey said. First, it requires vets to get a letter from the secretary of Veterans’ Affairs, confirming that they waited “an unacceptable amount of time for treatment” or live more than 40 miles from a VA medical facility.

“Good luck getting that letter! I talk to vets all the time who have contacted the VA, called them, e-mailed them everyday for six months and couldn’t get a reply,” said McCaughey.

Then, once the veteran gets the letter and a choice card, they go to a civilian doctor. The doctor must then call the VA to get “prior approval before treatment.”

“Good luck getting somebody to answer that phone call,” McCaughey said.

“And thirdly, most preposterously, this bill states that this choice program will end in two years. In other words, a few hours after the VA manages to finally get the hotline up and get the cards distributed to vets, it will be over,” she said.

“There is a way to solve this problem and put the vets in the driver’s seat, and I’m going to credit the Rand researchers with this idea, because the fact is that almost half of vets stuck in these waiting lists are seniors. They’re 65 or older, and they’re virtually all on Medicare,” said McCaughey.

McCaughey proposed allowing veterans on Medicare to use a “special Medigap card” to receive “non-combat-related,” “age-related” treatment, such as bypass surgery and angioplasty at civilian hospitals, particularly teaching hospitals.

“It would reduce the backlog by as much as half, solving this national crisis,” she said.

“And in many cases, vets would get better care, because the mortality rates at the teaching hospitals associated with many of these VA medical centers are much lower. They’re high volume hospitals, and they do these age-related procedures all the time,” McCaughey added.

“What’s holding the seniors back is lack of knowledge about that resource, and secondly, the co-payments, the out-of-pocket expenses,” she said, calling the plan “budget neutral.”

“You’re already paying for the care, and yet it would allow them to access better care. It would reduce the wait lists, and it would allow vets who have fought for our freedom … to get the care they need,” she added.