As top Trump-appointed Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) leaders pursue their efforts to privatize the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), Congress is desperately in need of members who will assertively oppose VHA privatization. It needs senators and representatives who will champion adequately financing and staffing the nation’s largest, and only publicly funded, fully integrated health-care system. Newly elected Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has joined the handful of Democrats who have opposed VHA privatization, which proponents are promoting through the VA MISSION Act passed in the last session of Congress and set to be implemented in June.
At an April 17 Bronx town hall on the VA, in which I also participated, Ocasio-Cortez told an audience of veterans and VHA caregivers, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
She argued that the VHA “provides some of the highest quality care to our veterans,” and warned against those determined to turn the VHA budget over to “pharmaceutical companies … insurance companies, and ultimately … a for-profit healthcare industry that does not put people or veterans first.”
A week after the event, Tennessee Republican Phil Roe, ranking member (and former chairman) of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and co-sponsor of the VA MISSION Act of 2018, attacked Ocasio-Cortez on Fox News. “Apparently ignorance is bliss when it comes to Representative Ocasio-Cortez and her views of VA,” Roe intoned. “It is evident that she paid little attention to the scandalous treatment of veterans that occurred several years ago by some in the very agency created to serve them. … When you don’t know anything about anything you should probably keep your mouth shut or everyone will know you don’t know anything.”
The question, of course, is who is living in “blissful ignorance”—former chairman Roe or Ocasio-Cortez. Study after study has documented that the VHA delivers care that is equal or superior to that delivered in the private sector. The RAND Corporation recently released a study of private-sector providers in New York state: The vast majority, RAND concluded, are ill prepared to care for veterans and know almost nothing about military culture and the service-related conditions in which the VHA specializes. Even VA leaders have acknowledged that veterans get higher-quality and more timely services in the VHA and may be harmed by ill-prepared private-sector providers.
At the town hall (sponsored by the National Nurses United and the National Nurses Organizing Committee), John Rowan, national president of Vietnam Veterans of America, warned that the private sector will never be able to treat the kind of complex service-related conditions that he and so many other veterans suffer from.
The town hall didn’t ignore VHA shortcomings. Panelists Jeremy Butler, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and Kristen Rouse of the NYC Veterans Alliance wanted the VHA to provide more and better services to a growing number of women veterans. Speaking from the audience, constituents echoed the panelists. One mother of a veteran who died because of addiction-related problems wanted the system to deliver more—not less—care to veterans.
Ocasio-Cortez was careful to respond to these concerns and link them to health-care system issues like the struggle for broader health-care reform. “Care for our veterans should not be for sale,” she said, just as “insulin should not be for sale.” She correctly pointed out that the VHA is having difficulty recruiting doctors and nurses because of the high cost of health professional education, and concluded by going beyond the slogan Medicare for All to “VA for All.”
It is perhaps this broader lens that is proving so irksome to privatizers like Phil Roe. In defending the nation’s only socialized health-care system and connecting the struggle against VA privatization to larger issues of health-care reform, Ocasio-Cortez is following in the footsteps of Bernie Sanders. Doing what too few Democrats have done, she is debunking the false promises and claims of Republicans who purport to be veterans’ best friends.
Like Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez is also linking the fact that military intervention generates thousands of new VA patients with stratospheric levels of military spending that divert federal resources from health care for all and other services for veterans as well as their families and communities. What the Republicans fear about her current outspokenness on this issue is what they’ve always feared about Sanders: the ability to reach poor and working-class Americans—including nine million patients of the VHA—with progressive ideas and new political alternatives.