Congressman: Privatize Some Veterans Health Services

Published July 28, 2014

In light of numerous recent problems uncovered at the Veterans Heath Administration, including fatalities while veterans await care, a medical doctor and House member is calling for the government to enable veterans to seek more of their taxpayer-financed care at civilian providers. Whistleblowers and investigations have uncovered widespread problems at the VHA, including falsified wait lists and veterans not receiving the health benefits they are entitled too.

Rep. Andy Harris (R–MD), a physician and former member of the Navy medical corps, favors allowing veterans to receive their health care outside the VHA.

“I believe those who put their lives on the line to serve our country should have access to the best care our nation has to offer, whether through VA facilities or through private care, if that is what the veteran wants,” Harris said. “Veterans should be allowed to see any doctor they choose, go to hospitals that are close to home, and receive care from top professionals.” 

VA System in Turmoil

Proposals to partially privatize the VHA are nothing new. Nearly two decades ago U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) advocated privatizing the Veterans Administration, and during the 2008 presidential campaign Sen. John McCain proposed allowing veterans to get most of their health care from private providers.

Testifying before the Committee on Veterans Affairs on June 9 of this year, Acting Inspector General for the Veterans Administration Richard Griffin described his office’s preliminary findings at the Phoenix facility that was at the early center of the scandal.

His testimony said the investigation had identified about 1,400 veterans who were on the wait list in Phoenix but had not been able to obtain a primary care visit, and “an additional 1,700 veterans who were waiting for a primary care appointment but were not on the [Electronic Wait List].”

Griffin also stated his office had received “numerous allegations daily of mismanagement, inappropriate hiring decisions, sexual harassment, and bullying behavior by mid-and senior-level managers at this facility” and confirmed that the problems at the Phoenix facility appeared to be nationwide.

Privatizing Services the Answer?

Devon Herrick, a health economist and senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis, says many of these problems would be resolved or at least dramatically reduced by creating what he called a “smaller footprint” for the Veterans Administration.

“There are a lot of health conditions veterans are facing that the civilian health system commonly treats, like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer,” Herrick said. “I could easily envision a VHA with a smaller footprint, focused on medical issues where they had a specialized expertise in treating certain conditions specifically related to the often unique nature of combat and military service.”

Joe Davis, public relations director for Veterans of Foreign Wars, didn’t dismiss the proposals but urged caution in designing reforms.

“The VHA operates the country’s largest integrated health system, which can enable them to meet all of a veteran’s needs in one facility. Veterans don’t come in with just one medical issue,” Davis said.

He said the VHA already has the authority to contract out to private providers when needed, and he noted there are medical conditions which the VHA has superior expertise and experience in treating, citing post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and prosthetics as examples.

“I hope that the outside medical community can come to the Veterans Health Administration and ask how they can help with these issues,” Davis said, as opposed to simply trying to fix the problems through the political process with new legislation or oversight.

Rep. Harris does not plan to introduce his own legislation at this time, but he said he intends to continue to advocate for the idea.

“I’m going to describe a system where we begin to decompress the VA health care system, which is obviously overburdened, and begin to consider offering veterans who are newly assigned to the VA the benefit option of going into the private system and being taken care of in their local hospitals instead of in the VA system,” Harris said during an appearance on the Fox and Friends TV program in late May.