VAMC employees protest privatization of veteran care

Pictured are (from left) union members Margie Loudermilk, President Anita Campbell, and past president, Teressa Altic. Photo by Kelsey Bartlett.
Pictured are (from left) union members Margie Loudermilk, President Anita Campbell, and past president, Teressa Altic. Photo by Kelsey Bartlett.
Around two-dozen Salem Veterans Affairs Medical Center employees and members of the American Federation of Government Employees took to the streets outside of VAMC on Wednesday, June 29, to host an informational picket raising awareness about the dangers of privatizing veteran medical care, as proposed by the VA Commission on Care.

“I want to keep the promise to our veterans that they will receive good care,” said Teressa Altic, a nurse at VAMC for 32 years and former president of the local AFGE.

“We want to make sure that we take care of our veterans,” added current president Anita Campbell. “A lot of these places are not used to treating PTSD and a lot of these illnesses that our veterans have, but we’re used to those behaviors. It’s the continuity of care.”

Their concerns stem from draft legislation proposed earlier in June, publicly released by the office of Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers. Soon, the VA Commission on Care is expected to release its recommendations, which some fear could potentially lead to the closing of VA Medical Centers across the country.

“We believe there is a better way to expand access to high-quality, veteran-focused care by creating local high-performing health care networks that seamlessly integrate the best of community care into the VA system,” wrote several representatives in a joint Veteran Service Organization letter addressed to Rodgers. “Under our vision, VA would remain the coordinator and primary provider of care, but sufficient new community care options would be identified and integrated into local networks to provide veterans with real options for timely and convenient care, whenever and wherever VA has gaps.”

Rodgers introduced the Caring for our Heroes in the 21st Century act as a “discussion draft,” which would launch the Veterans Health Insurance Program to manage insurance programs.

Typically, the VAMC has provided primary care and referred veterans to private care if a specialist is needed. According Marilyn Park, a member of the AFGE National VA Council, the move would mean veterans who seek privatized care wouldn’t be able to also seek care from the VAMC, but would be referred to outside specialists.

“I’m very concerned about some of the recommendations that are pushing towards privatization,” Park said. “The thing that is beautiful about the VA is that they look at the whole veteran. There are so many complex needs.”

The proposed legislation gained traction on the premises that the VAMC provides lower quality care than the private sector, stemming from very public changes to the VA health care system over the past two years, as reports of veterans waiting too long made national news, leading to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric K. Shineski and emergency legislation to expand non-VA care through a temporary choice program. The program ends next year, putting pressure on Congress and the President to make decisions about the future of the VAMC.

Mike Rosenblatt, an AFGE National VA Council lobbyist, is in charge of organizing rallies in protest of the VA Commission on Care, and said over the past month, there have been around 42 across the nation.

“Its been eye opening,” Rosenblatt said. “The feedback I’ve received is that a lot of people and vets are saying they had no idea this was even going on.”

Vietnam veteran John Koelsch said he has been receiving care from the Salem VAMC for about 10 years, and would be lost without it.

“Ninety-eight percent of medical personnel try to do a good job,” Koelsch said. “They are becoming more and more responsive to veterans’ needs.”

“The people who are proposing this haven’t served,” he added. “If you can spend trillions of dollars on a war, you can take care of veterans. To talk about closing the VA when more and more of us are entering it… it’s about as unpatriotic as you can get.”

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