Tapped: The Prospect Group Blog

With Massive Merger, the Prison Phone Industry Could Become Even More Lucrative

The prison phone industry, which has come under fire for the exorbitant fees it charges prisoners calling home, may be set to become even more profitable. This month, the giant inmate phone services company Securus petitioned the FCC to approve its plan to buy a smaller competitor, ICSolutions.

If the Trump administration’s Federal Communications Commission approves the merger, just two companies (Securus and Global Tel Link) would control between 74 percent and 83 percent of the market, according to analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI). (Securus responded to PPI’s analysis, calling it “unreliable and misleading.”)

I previously wrote about how the prison phone industry is lucrative for both companies and states: Companies squeeze as much money as possible out of prisoners and their families, who are typically poor, while states often award contracts to phone companies that are willing to pay the highest commission rates. As a result, prisoners and their families may pay as much $1 per minute for a phone call.

As Aleks Kajstura, legal director at PPI, wrote in a blog post, just two companies controlling the lion’s share of the prison communications industry “will give facilities less choice and less ability to draft contracts that truly meet their needs.” According to reporting by the Marshall Project, if the deal is approved, prison systems in 47 states will contract with either Securus, Global Tel Link, or CenturyLink—and CenturyLink subcontracts nearly all of its contracts with ICSolutions or Securus.

PPI joined a number of prisoner advocacy organizations in filing a petition to deny the merger—but not merely because of the threat of a duopoly. They also argue that Securus routinely ignores regulations in order to maximize its profits (like when the FCC banned flat-rate fees on phone calls, and Securus changed the name of the charge to “first-minute” fees).

How will the Trump FCC rule on this? We can’t be sure yet, but let’s look to recent history: Last year, the administration approved Global Tel Link’s acquisition of Telmate, a company that had a market share just shy of ICSolutions’.

The Nation’s Youth Demand Action on Climate Change

Dreary weather and constant rain did not stop hundreds from turning out for Saturday’s Youth Climate March in Washington, D.C. The diverse crowd included families from Kansas City, youth who protested the Dakota Access Pipeline on the Standing Rock Reservation, and residents of the Marshall Islands who have seen firsthand how rising sea levels threaten their communities.

Young people were both the symbolic and actual leaders of this movement: The Youth Climate March was hosted by ZeroHour, an activist group with about 40 core members, most of whom are still in high school. Founder Jamie Margolin, 16, self-identifies as “#GenZ” in her Twitter bio. 

Generation Z is the age group younger than millennials, who overwhelmingly believe that anthropogenic climate change is real and a serious threat. A 2015 Pew survey showed that 52 percent of people ages 18 to 29 said climate change is a very serious problem, and more recent data shows that 81 percent of millennials say there is solid evidence for global warming. The recent student-led gun-control movement is just one indication that Generation Z could be even more progressive than their generational predecessors. Margolin said that ZeroHour learned from past marches, such as the February 21 March for Our Lives and the Families Belong Together march in June, but she and other organizers realized that high turnout wasn’t their only goal.

“We see mass mobilizations but we don’t see the change that we need,” she told the Prospect. “That’s why we came up with a platform of what we, the youth, need in order to have a livable future.” 

The ZeroHour platform specifies the need to listen to people whose daily lives have already been affected by climate change and calls for adding climate change to the political conversation for the midterm elections. 

The leaders of ZeroHour aim to make it an inclusive and worldwide initiative. “ZeroHour is not just [saving] the planet,” Margolin said. “It’s about the communities that have already been impacted, the lives that have already been lost. That’s who we’re fighting for, that’s what we’re fighting for.” 

Kibiriti Majuto, 20, who led the effort to write ZeroHour’s platform, added that the group addresses the responsibility of the United States, as the world’s second-highest greenhouse gas–emitting country, to fight climate change. Majuto also said there needs to be a “just transition” away from fossil fuels, but that transition needs to guarantee protection for marginalized communities and youth.

Majuto, who was granted asylum from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2012, said that the march’s message came from “a lot of collaboration with young people across the country and the world … different parts that are mostly impacted by climate change.” 

“The people who are at the receiving end of oppression are feeling the worst effects of the climate crisis, so we are fighting to uplift those voices,” Margolin explained. 

The march was a culmination of three “days of action” in the District that included a day of lobbying on Capitol Hill on Thursday and community art festival on Friday. Margolin said that ZeroHour representatives talked to almost half of all the senators, including Bernie Sanders, Tammy Duckworth, and Patty Murray. Majuto is not optimistic that lobbying will spur change.

“We know they’re not going to do anything,” Majuto said, expressing his pessimism about the lobbying effort. But Margolin hopes these conversations will make climate change an important issue advance of the midterm elections. ZeroHour members handed out a No Fossil Fuel Money pledge to members of Congress, asking them to divest from the fossil fuel industry and to stop taking campaign contributions from the industry.

When asked which members ZeroHour was targeting, Margolin’s answer was decisive: “Anyone who takes money from the fossil fuel industry has to go.” 

Come September, many of the young activists will return to school—Margolin to her junior year of high school in Seattle and Majuto to Piedmont Virginia Community College. But Margolin said that won’t stop the work of ZeroHour.

A Nonprofit Group (and Not the Government) Saves SNAP at Farmers Markets—For Now

Food justice advocates breathed a sigh of relief Thursday as a pending disruption in farmers markets accepting SNAP benefits was narrowly averted for the time being. Has the Trump administration stepped in and provided a solution to the markets nationwide that were threatened? Of course not! A nonprofit group has cleaned up after the government’s missteps.

Let me try to briefly tell a very complicated story of why this was necessary (which I recently reported in a longer feature). As originally reported by The Washington Post, the federal government chose a new contractor for the program that funds equipment for farmers markets to accept SNAP benefits. That new contractor did not choose to work with the software vendor, Novo Dia, that currently processes SNAP benefits for about 40 percent of SNAP transactions at markets across the country. Because of this, Novo Dia announced it couldn’t cover the costs of their software and was going out of business. Novo Dia’s service to markets would end July 31. Without that vendor’s technology, nearly 2,000 markets would not be able to accept SNAP benefits, affecting SNAP recipients’ ability to buy food and affecting small farmers’ revenue.

But on Thursday, the National Association of Farmers Market Nutrition Programs announced that it will fund Novo Dia for an additional 30 days so that there will be no disruption in service for markets who use the company’s app to process SNAP benefits. That service extension will run through at least until the end of August.

Not only will this mean that markets will be able to continue accepting benefits, but it also buys time for markets and advocates to ensure that service isn’t disrupted at all. The move “[gives] us time to provide a long term, workable solution to keeping our markets and farmers active in the SNAP program,” said Diane Eggert of the Farmers Market Federation of New York in a statement. Instead of being forced to find a solution in the next two weeks, farmers and markets have more time to switch equipment (which they likely will still have to fund themselves).

The extension of Novo Dia’s service is great news for farmers markets and SNAP recipients: It’s hard to underscore how perilous the situation would have been for low-income people who shop at markets, as well as for farmers who rely on revenue from SNAP benefits, if SNAP could no longer be accepted at many markets.

But in celebrating, let’s not let the Department of Agriculture off the hook. As I wrote, the government knowingly ended the program last fall and was slow to restart it. They changed the stipulations for the federal contracting bid so that nonprofits were not able to apply, ensuring that it would be a new contractor that would take over the program, who would essentially be starting from scratch. And the department did not work with the new contractor to build a timeline to guarantee service would not be disrupted—that new contractor just started accepting applications this week. Finally, the government stipulated that the new contractor could not accept applications from farmers and markets using equipment under a previous contract, even if that equipment was, say, about to shutdown.

And it wasn’t even the government, which is nominally in charge of this program, who promised they were “exploring all available options in an attempt to avoid a service disruption,“ that solved this problem. Instead, that was left to the National Association of Farmers Market Nutrition Programs. 

Trump Didn't Flout GOP Norms — He Epitomized Them

When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, the American Right was faced with a conundrum. For most of the 20th century, it had defined itself by its anti-communism, the sole idea on which all wings of the disparate conservative community could agree. Moreover, anti-communism gave the Republicans a handy club with which to beat Democrats, since they could always attack the Democrats for being either soft on communism or, since Democrats believed in a mixed economy, being closet communists themselves. Then as now, Republicans were seldom deterred by an absence of evidence.

But with the 1991-1992 dissolution of the Soviet Union, the barbarians were no longer at the gate. The immediate beneficiary of this brave new world was presidential candidate Bill Clinton, whom the Republicans couldn’t attack, in the sudden absence of communism, for being soft on communism. There was still China, of course, but Republicans in those days and for some time thereafter liked China as a place where American corporations could do business.

Over the past quarter-century, however, Republicans have risen to the occasion: They have invented an enemy within whose purported terrors still drive GOP voters to the polls. The process began right after the Commies disappeared, in the 1992 Republican primaries, when Pat Buchanan proclaimed a culture war on liberals, minorities, and modernity itself—that is, on his fellow Americans. By 1994, Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh were singing from the same foul hymnal, and one year later Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes came along to swell the chorus. From that time forth, the Republican mantra was established: The enemy was here; the enemy was modernity; the enemy was the Democrats.

Then, a decade ago, Buchanan struck again. In his columns, he began noting that Vladimir Putin, while a onetime KGB-nik, was also becoming the leading figure on the world scene to oppose homosexuality and other egalitarian liberal deviations. Putin’s our guy, Buchanan concluded, waging the kind of war for traditional patriarchal authority and against his liberals that we Republicans need to wage against ours. (Having grown up in a household that vehemently supported Francisco Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil War, Buchanan had a chronic soft spot for authoritarians.)

Yesterday, what was once Buchanan’s eccentricity became the official policy of the president of the United States. Trump probably doesn’t give a hoot about Putin’s leadership of the war on gays, but as a nationalist patriarchal authoritarian thug, Putin is Trump’s kind of guy. Yes, Trump believes that he needs to back Putin up on the electoral interference question because it calls into question his victory; yes, perhaps Trump fears that Putin and his comrades have got the goods on him and he’d better go along with whatever they say.

But what we saw yesterday was also the reductio-ad-absurdum of the great Republican switcheroo: With the Communists gone, our real enemy is the enemy at home. And so a KGB thug with blood on his hands is the Republican president’s man, while Robert Mueller and the FBI are the cancer growing within. This is completely nuts, but it is also the logical culmination of the last 25 years of Republican evolution.

NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly Goes Ballistic in Interview with London Mayor Sadiq Khan

On July 13, an NPR interview with London Mayor Sadiq Khan turned into a debate over the right to peaceful protest. While the topic of the interview was purportedly Trump’s U.K. visit and his harsh criticisms of Khan, reporter Mary Louise Kelly instead used the opportunity to pick a fight with the mayor over whether a giant “Trump Baby” balloon that hovered over the anti-Trump protests in London went beyond the bounds of acceptable dissent.

Trump’s comments about Khan were part of the same explosive interview with The Sun in which he attacked British Prime Minister Theresa May on the eve of their meeting in London. In the Sun story, Trump launched several broadsides at Khan, a Labour Party member who has been London’s mayor since 2016—among them, “You have a mayor who has done a terrible job in London,” “I think he’s done a terrible job on terrorism,” and “I think he has done a bad job on crime, if you look, all of the horrible things going on there, with all of the crime that is being brought in.”

Kelly began the interview by asking Khan: “I’m holding a copy of The Sun, which as you know has a scathing interview with President Trump today in which he tears into you for doing a terrible job as mayor and doing a terrible job keeping this city safe. What’s your response?”

Khan tried to be diplomatic. The New York Times’ fact-checking analysis noted that Trump’s remarks about Khan and London were misleading, but Khan didn’t seek to specifically rebut Trump’s remarks. Instead, Khan—who has often jousted with Trump and with The Sun, a right-wing tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch—simply said, “Well, one of the great things about our city and our country is we have a free press. And we also have the right to protest, the right to free speech.” Khan, London’s first Muslim mayor, didn’t directly counter Trump’s provocative comment, that Europe was “losing its culture,” and facing rising crime, because of immigration. Nor did he address Trump’s inflammatory attack on May.

“Well, he’s entitled to have his views,” Khan told Kelly. “I’m not going to rise to the individual things President Trump said. I’m hoping during the course of his visit he sees a city and a country very comfortable with ourselves, very comfortable with our diversity. That’s something we should celebrate and not be scared of.”

When it became clear that Khan was not going to respond in kind to Trump, Kelly picked a fight with Khan, asking him whether he should have prohibited the giant balloon depicting Trump as a screaming orange baby in a diaper—holding a cellphone with Twitter on the screen—that floated above Parliament Square, where about 250,000 people rallied against the American president.

Kelly asked: “Speaking of protests, down near Parliament today—a giant Trump baby blimp. You signed off on this. You have history of bad blood with President Trump. Is this your way of taking a pot shot at him?”

Khan defended people’s right to protest, but Kelly wouldn’t relinquish her line of questioning: “But the blimp is such a striking visual. It will be the image beamed around the world of London, the city you run, all day today. It will be seen as London raising a middle finger to President Trump.” 

Khan refused to take the bait, again defending the right to protest. At that point, Kelly went ballistic, asking Khan: “If somebody wanted to float a blimp of a naked Theresa May over Parliament, that would be OK?” 

Khan kept his cool, despite Kelly’s outrageous question. 

“Look, the limitations are quite clear,” he said. “They’re there in the rules. They’ve got to be peaceful. They’ve got to be safe. It’s really important that police—”

Kelly interrupted: “A naked Theresa May would be peaceful and safe. Would that be all right?” 

Many politicians would have ended the interview at that point, but Khan calmly responded: “It’s really important that police sign off on them as well. So a blimp has got to be signed off by—not just by City Hall staff, certainly by the police and the National Air Traffic Services as well. But people are finding—”

Kelly—the co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered who should have learned something about civil liberties while majoring in government at Harvard and earning a master’s in European Studies at England’s Cambridge University—interrupted him again. “But you run this town,” she said. “You allowed this.” 

Khan didn’t let Kelly rattle him. He explained: “Well, can you imagine what your listeners would think if the politicians curtailing free speech, curtailing the right to protest simply because somebody’s offended—what’s next? The key thing is it should be done in a peaceful manner and should be good-spirited.”

By that time, Kelly realized that Khan wasn’t going to be lured by her provocation, so she abruptly ended the interview. 

“Mayor Khan, thank you for taking the time,” she said. 

“My pleasure,” Khan responded with obvious irony. 

Kelly ended the four-minute segment with: “That’s Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London.”

Putin Must Love Having Trump on His Side

It must be nice to have Washington on your side.

Vladimir Putin has to be heading home scratching his head. His meeting with Trump was choreographed to be cordial. But why on earth did Trump need to repeat, in even stronger terms, that he believes Putin’s denials over the extensive investigations of the entire U.S. intelligence establishment?

“They said they think it’s Russia; I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia,” Mr. Trump declared at the joint press conference—right after the Putin admitted that he had favored Mr. Trump in the election because of his promises of closer relations with Moscow.

Why did Trump not even go through the motions of asking Putin to keep his mitts off the American election process?

This makes no sense, either in domestic political terms or in terms of Trump’s tactical effort to discredit the special counsel. And it strengthens the case for what will be the strongest count in the impeachment of Trump—namely, treason.

Trump's mission to Finland is a political catastrophe for him, capping his buffoonish performances at NATO and in Britain. There is no good explanation for any of it, except a psychiatric one.

Those Democrats who say that raising impeachment will set back their chances of taking the House in the November elections are profoundly wrong. Impeachment just became inevitable.

Nebraska Voters Could Decide to Expand Medicaid

While many Republican governors have refused to expand Medicaid, some conservative-led states may have to resign themselves to letting direct democracy decide the question, thanks to the efforts of advocacy groups across the country. 

In Nebraska last week, advocacy group Insure the Good Life announced that it had received the number of required signatures for a November ballot initiative that will put it to the voters whether to expand access to Medicaid for 90,000 low-income Nebraskans. The group collected 133,000 signatures, almost 60 percent more than the approximately 85,000 necessary. Insure the Good Life is supported by several Nebraska groups, but is mostly funded by the Washington, D.C.-based Fairness Project, a group working to get Medicaid expansion on the ballot in states across the country. 

Similar efforts backed by the Fairness Project are underway in Idaho and Utah. Idaho, like Nebraska, still needs to validate petition signatures; the expansion measure will appear on the ballot in Utah this fall.

But even if a state’s voters decide to expand health care, that doesn’t mean the state government will necessarily respect the vote. In Maine, about 60 percent of voters elected to expand Medicaid, but Republican Governor Paul LePage is steadfastly refusing to allow the expansion—even in the face of a state judge’s order to stop stalling and to comply with the outcome of the popular vote.

While Nebraska Republican Governor Pete Ricketts’s re-election campaign spokesperson said that the expansion decision “ultimately rests with Nebraska voters,” the state legislature’s cooperation is even less certain. Medicaid expansion has failed repeatedly over the past six years in the Nebraska Legislature, and two Republican state senators have already sued to block the measure from appearing on the ballot.

The efforts to get Medicaid expansion on state ballots is an example of increased progressive grassroots action in conservative-led states, from canvassing for thousands of signatures to raising awareness about how expansion would bring federal dollars into Nebraska and provide health coverage to the poor.

Marea Bishop, an advocate for Insure the Good Life’s petition drive, wrote an op-ed in the Omaha World-Herald describing how her health condition keeps her from holding steady work and her own inability to afford health insurance. 

“Our communities can no longer wait while our Nebraska lawmakers fail to solve this public health problem,” she wrote. “We can do what our lawmakers have chosen not to do: to give our neighbors, our co-workers, our fellow Nebraskans a chance at a healthier life.”

Jeff Sessions Does Not Understand Domestic Violence

As the Trump administration half-heartedly attempts to clean up the mess that its family separation policy created, another regressive policy that alters who can seek asylum in the United States is now in effect.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a directive in mid-June that severely restricts the ability of asylum seekers to gain entry into the United States by citing fears of domestic or gang violence. Sessions reconsidered an already-approved asylum petition of a domestic violence survivor, known in the case as “A-B-” from El Salvador. He also overruled a 2014 precedent that recognized domestic violence as a basis for asylum, reigniting the debate on what constitutes a need for refuge.

The number of people granted asylum is actually quite small: In 2016, for every asylum applicant who succeeded, more than ten others failed. Which makes the June 11 decision even more stunning: Sessions fails to understand intimate partner violence, mislabeling it as “private” matter between a husband and wife that is limited to the domestic sphere.

Because of their “pre-existing personal relationship,” Sessions concludes that domestic violence survivors do not face persecution due to their membership in a “particular social group,” which is required to gain asylum in the United States.

Sessions ignores a simple fact: El Salvador is one of the deadliest places in the world to be a woman. It’s also been called the “murder capital of the world”: A recent study found a woman is killed there every 16 hours.

Violence in the small Central American country, particularly violence perpetrated against women, is pervasive and infects the country’s entire ecosystem. Government corruption is widespread; doctors are intimidated by the prospect of prison time from helping women who were raped obtain abortions (which are illegal in all circumstances); intimate partner violence occurs daily; and gangs commit murder and sexual violence with almost complete impunity.

And yet, the Trump administration maintains that people fleeing this violence are not refugees. Doctors Without Borders called this policy a death sentence for any woman attempting to escape her abuser.

The assumption that toughening up border enforcement will deter migrants from attempting to cross it is deeply flawed. Stricter border laws push people fleeing violence to pay higher prices to use traffickers instead, which reinforces the vicious cycle of organized crime.

The brutality that A-B- faced did not occur in a vacuum. This “private violence” is not private at all; it’s actually a public health crisis. Domestic violence affects nearly a third of women worldwide. As many as 38 percent of murders of women in the world are committed by a male intimate partner.

The World Health Organization defines intimate partner violence as “behavior by an intimate partner or ex-partner that causes physical, sexual or psychological harm, including physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse, and controlling behaviors.” These behaviors can lead to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, and suicide attempts. Violence can also lead to unintended physical outcomes, including pregnancies, gynecological problems, induced abortions, and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

Children growing up in such situations are more likely to perpetrate or experience violence later in life. There are considerable social and economic costs as well: Women facing violence can experience social isolation, loss of wages from an inability to work, lack of participation in their community, and an inability to care for themselves and their children.

But the attorney general, whose history of racist remarks led to the loss of a federal judgeship in 1986, likely failed to take such factors into consideration in his shameful ruling.

An immigration judge would usually handle an asylum case. If a woman loses her case, the matter can go before the federal Board of Immigration Appeals before being heard in federal circuit court. But in an effort to severely limit the number of people granted asylum, Sessions exploited a rarely used provision allowing him to personally override this process in the A-B- case.  

In 2016, the Board of Immigration Appeals found that A-B- did indeed qualify for asylum because she was part of a “particular social group” of women in El Salvador who are unable to leave violent marriages due the Salvadoran government’s failure to protect them.

Sessions has sent a clear message to the Central American women forced to abandon their homes and flee for their lives: No matter how much abuse you’ve suffered, American immigration officials would prefer to send you back to your country to meet an almost certain death.

Maryland Democrats Still Split Over Gerrymandering after Supreme Court Punts

While the Texas gerrymandering decision commanded the country’s attention, the Supreme Court also dodged partisan gerrymandering questions in the Maryland case, Benisek v. Lamone. But Maryland’s anti-gerrymandering advocates weren’t surprised by the decision to send Benisek back to a lower court. Instead, voting rights advocates stayed focused on their ongoing efforts  to end the democracy-eroding practice by the 2021 redistricting cycle.

Benisek is unusual. In many of the cases that come before the courts, Republicans are the gerrymandering culprits. But Maryland’s Sixth Congressional District was rigged to be blue. Democratic Governor Martin O’Malley appointed the members of the redistricting committee and oversaw the 2011 redistricting effort. So in 2012, even though nearly 40 percent of the state’s registered voters are Republicans, seven out of eight seats in the House were filled by Democrats. (O’Malley was later deposed by attorneys in the Benisek case over his actions.)

But Republicans aren’t the only group contesting Democratic gerrymanders. Democrats have also taken them on. A bipartisan group of Maryland voters including Democrat Steven Shapiro, an engineer who moved into law, also sought relief from the high court over the issues presented by redistricting in the Sixth Congressional District (The high court ruled on narrower issues in a 2015 decision, Shapiro v. McManus, and took up the weightier constitutional matters in Benisek.)

These developments leave Maryland Democrats divided between those politicians who want to maintain the status quo, because gerrymandering keeps their seats safe, and others who want a system that does not skew district lines to favor one party over another.

“The majority party isn’t interested in losing control,” Ashley Oleson, administrative director of League of Women Voters of Maryland tells the Prospect. Similarly, Damon Effingham, acting director of Common Cause Maryland, explains that Maryland Democratic leaders defensively claim that they are “just evening the score a little bit”, as one of the few blue states that gerrymanders in a sea of red states that do. Effingham also explained that some legislators defend gerrymandering as “a point of leverage”, in that maybe by having blue gerrymandered state, it can be used to help “mutually disarm” all the red gerrymandered states. 

However, both Effingham and Oleson doubt that any significant changes will occur in time for the midterms. Their next big hurdle is the 2021 congressional redistricting process that will occur after the 2020 census.

Trump Administration Moves Forward on VA Privatization

Under the guise of reducing veteran suicides, the Trump administration has released a plan that could radically reshape veteran care in the United States. The stated goal is to expand mental health services for newly transitioned veterans, the proposal, which administration officials approved on May 31, contains provisions that could starve the Veterans Health Administration of needed resources, add impossible burdens to already struggling VHA staff, and privatize veteran mental health care by outsourcing it to non-VA providers. As studies have consistently shown, such private-sector providers are ill equipped to address veterans’ complex needs. 

Released on May 3, the Joint Action Plan represents an outline of how the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Defense, and Homeland Security propose to implement an executive order President Donald J. Trump signed in January. The order called for providing all service-members transitioning out of the military—about 245,000 a year—with 12 months of free mental health care. The impetus behind the plan—preventing veteran suicides—and a number of things in it are praiseworthy, even essential. But according to a careful analysis by the Veterans Healthcare Policy Institute, the plan could actually jeopardize the stellar suicide prevention and mental health programs that the VA has long pioneered.

The action plan stipulates that transitioning service-members will have access to 12 months of mental health benefits. Service-members must also be informed that they don’t have to seek help from the VHA and are free to go to private-sector mental health providers, if they are, for any reason, not interested in VHA care. The plan calls for some VHA oversight of these private-sector providers, but provides no funding for staff needed to monitor their care. 

The danger is that VHA veterans could be cared for by providers who may not understand their specific problems or provide evidence-based treatment for them. As studies have documented, private-sector care falls well short of the public sector in treating veterans. Unlike the care delivered at the VHA, which is well-coordinated, veteran care in the private sector would be uncoordinated and their providers largely unaccountable. Even worse, the funds to pay for expensive care in the private sector will come directly from the VHA budget. Without new congressionally approved allocations, the VHA will be forced to cannibalize existing programs to pay for the mandates.

Such threats come at a time when the VA system is already plagued by underfunding and understaffing. On June 14, 2018, the VA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) issued a report that once again highlights the problems created by Congress’s long-standing failure to fully fund and staff the Veterans Health Administration. Its detailed, facility-by-facility list of staff vacancies includes the mental health professionals needed to serve a growing number of veterans with serious mental health and substance abuse problems. (Seventy percent of facilities had shortages of psychiatrists and 40 percent of psychologists.) 

 The Joint Action Plan does not require that the Defense Department or others provide transitioning service-members with information about the high quality of programs the VHA has developed to deal with complex mental health problems. This kind of education is essential because any current or future problems the VHA faces provide fodder for right-wing critics—like Fox and Friends—as they churn out a steady stream of anti-VHA stories designed to convince veterans that the VHA can never serve their needs. Neither conservative nor liberal media do much reporting on the many innovations the VHA has pioneered in the delivery of integrated primary care, mental health care, or suicide prevention. Yet as studies have shown, the VHA has a far better track record on these issues than the private sector. 

The Joint Action Plan doesn’t even call for measuring whether newly discharged service-members receive such information. It does, however, recommend measuring how quickly department personnel are trained on the referral process to community-based support resources.

The plan’s defects don’t end there. Without offering additional funding, the plan requires the VA to train outreach workers and peer support staff, who then must repeatedly contact all 245,000 transitioning veterans. Staff will also have to provide care for an estimated 32,000 veterans each year. Finally, the VA will have to evaluate the success of all these and other programs.

Yet the plan does not suggest conducting an assessment of how many new VHA staff would need to be added, and thus funded, to accommodate these new caregiving and outreach responsibilities. Because twice as many veterans receive mental health treatment compared with ten years ago, VA mental health staff are already overwhelmed by their high caseloads. A recent report on VA mental health care from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine said that the VHA’s mental health-care system could be a model for the nation but that it was plagued by shortages of staff and clinical and exam space, which had created high staff burnout and turnover. Trying to accommodate thousands of new patients will lead to increased burnout and delays, which, absent attention to increased staffing, will fuel demands to outsource more and more care.   

Because the Joint Action Plan claims that its provisions will advance the laudable mission of preventing veteran suicide, it may receive support from Congress and some Veterans Service Organizations. Like the recently passed VA Mission Act, the VA Accountability Act, and many other recent measures, it is rife with intended consequences. As advocated by representatives of the Concerned Veterans for America—a Koch brothers’-backed group whose representatives now advise the VA and White House—it is, in fact, just another step down the slippery slope of VHA privatization.