The Independent Advisor: The VA — One of this year's political footballs

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It is an election year and as such veterans are a voting block that neither side can resist. Both candidates are promising to overhaul the Veterans Administration, once elected. The questions are whether to hand it over to the private sector or just try and fix the government organization's short-comings.

We all remember the terrible scandal back in 2014 when a whistle-blower revealed shocking inefficiencies, cover-ups and the deaths of some veterans within the Veterans Administration. The then Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, along with a gaggle of bosses in various states, who were caught falsifying waiting time reports for vets, provided the obligatory resignation parade before the nation.

Hearings were called; where 'outraged' politicians and Vet rights activists all got their share of free media time and in the end the Choice Act was rushed through congress. This allowed vets to go to private care providers if they were unable to schedule medical appointments within 30 days or travel distances of at least 40 miles to a VA office. This would theoretically insure that no more vets would die while waiting for treatment.

Critics charged that this was simply the first step toward privatization of the veterans' health care system.

A bi-partisan panel, the Commission on Care (COC), comprised of health care executives and veterans' advocates were charged with looking at the system and coming up with recommendations to "fix" it. Last month that panel issued 18 recommendations that are supposed to "transform this complex system."

If this all sounds like the typical smoke and mirrors remedy to a national problem that we have become accustomed to, then you wouldn't be wrong. First off, the panel recommended an 11-member board of directors that would govern the Veterans Health Administration and report directly to the president. To me that just sounds like adding another layer of bureaucracy on top of an administration chock full of the same.

In addition, a new 'community network of care' would allow vets to obtain medical services from both private and federal health care providers regardless of the distance to or wait times at their nearest VA providers. That would push the system further towards privatization, say its critics. Other suggestions included improving VA leadership, modernizing computer systems, enhancing clinic operations and creating an easy to use VA personnel system.

If all of those suggestions sound well-meaning, but nebulous in the extreme, you are right. If history is any guide, millions (if not billions) will be spent with little visible improvement in veteran's care, accountability will be low to non-existent, and as time passes, the whole effort will dwindle to nothing when the next crisis becomes the nation's priority.

Sorry for my cynicism, and now on to politics.

Few voters realized that the 2014 scandal occurred on Bernie Sander's watch. He was chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and had been so for a year when the scandal erupted. Critics argue that Sanders had been using the Veterans' health care system as a model for what a universal health care system in America would look like. Did Sanders' ideological views of how much government could deliver blind him to the VA's obvious (in hindsight) problems and deficiencies?

As politicians will do, Bernie soon turned a losing proposition into a win by taking credit for the Choice Act, even though the legislation opened the door for further privatization of the VA. Not to be outdone, Hillary Clinton, towing the traditional Democrat's party line, wants to build upon the Choice Act and restructure the agency, but falls short of privatizing it.

Republican Donald Trump, as you might expect, jumped into the act. Stating that the Department of Veterans Affairs' health care system is "badly broken," he would move the VA further toward privatization. His campaign spokespeople suggested that it could evolve into more of an insurance provider (like Medicare), than an integrated hospital system as it is now. Other GOP legislatures support at least a partial privatization of vet's affairs.

As a Vietnam Vet, there is a lot at stake for me and my fellow veterans. In my next column, I will examine the pros and cons of both positions.

Schmick is registered as an investment advisor representative and portfolio manager with Berkshire Money Management (BMM), managing over $200 million for investors in the Berkshires. Bill's forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of BMM.


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