Health care workers on Wednesday picketed outside the Salem VA Medical Center to let veterans know about a proposal to shutter VA hospitals and hand over their care to the private sector.
The proposal was considered and rejected in March by the Commission on Care, the group Congress charged with examining flaws to the Veterans Health Administration uncovered during the 2014 scandals.
The commission’s draft plan for reforming the VA health system is due soon and is expected to call for an integrated community network that provides veterans access to care through both the VA and private providers.
But officers with the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1739 said the idea is still being pushed in Congress to privatize the VA health system and ration care.
“It’s definitely alive and well. That’s why we are out here. The veterans aren’t aware of what is going on,” said local president Anita Campbell, a therapist for 34 years at the Salem VA. “The veterans need to know about this.”
Campbell and a group of workers manned an informational picket in front of one entrance to the Salem VA, while local vice president Beverly Bratton and others set up shop at the other entrance along Roanoke Boulevard.
“We are out here because we want to make sure it doesn’t happen,” Bratton said. She’s concerned veterans won’t get the same quality of care or as much as they need should the hospital close.
“There is some serious discussion in Congress of closing the VA, and of putting a cap on the amount of dollars for every veteran,” Bratton said. “Here, it doesn’t matter how many times a veteran needs to come, or for what, they don’t reach a dollar value. Nobody can take care of veterans the way we can.”
The employees hoisted “Veterans for a Strong VA” placards and waved to passing motorists. Some honked in solidarity.
The signs’ messages weren’t explicit, and it was hard to pick up while driving by that veterans were being asked to call 844-913-7574 to register concerns with their congressional representatives.
The staffs of U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia said they had not heard from the union, but both support the Veterans First Act to strengthen access to care.
U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith said, “I look forward to reading the report once it has been completed, and then meeting with concerned veterans and employees of the Veterans Administration facilities.”
Campbell said the union hopes the daylong picket and others like it across the country will help to spread the word to veterans.
About 1,100 of the 2,000 Salem VA employees belong to the local.
Picketers said the Commission on Care is stacked against veterans, with too much influence from private health providers and from the Concerned Veterans for America, which they perceive as seeking to privatize the VA.
“These attacks are inaccurate, and they are nothing new,” said John Cooper, a spokesman for that organization. “Unions like the AFGE are threatened by the concept that veterans should have choice in where they get their care, a concept supported by more than 90 percent of veterans, and all Americans, according to recent polls.”
Veteran Daniel Hines joined the picketers, and said he doesn’t want or need a choice. He’s received care at the Salem VA since a medical discharge in 2007 after sustaining a traumatic brain injury.
“I don’t want to go somewhere else. They know here about PTSD and how to treat veterans. The doctors know not to touch me in certain ways,” Hines said.
Outside of the VA, health care providers aren’t as aware of issues unique to veterans, he said.
“I’m supposed to have a colonoscopy in August. They offered to get me an appointment elsewhere, but I’d rather wait three months,” he said.
The picketers said that instead of looking to privatize the VA, Congress should invest more in the system.
The VA has flaws, Campbell said, but most are from lack of funding.
Specialists can command higher salaries in the private sector, and the budget doesn’t stretch far enough to hire as many nurses as needed, she said.
Staff continues to churn because nurses can earn more at Carilion Clinic or LewisGale Medical Center. But Campbell said nurses at the VA care for fewer patients, which increases the quality of care.
Ann Benois, spokeswoman for the Salem VA, said management “respects the union and shares their commitment to federal workers. We have a well-documented collaborative and proactive partnership with labor. Our facility is communicating with union leadership regarding their concerns and will continue to do so.”