Why We Should Fight for the Veterans Health Administration

Think of America’s forever wars as a funnel between the largest and second-largest federal government departments.

Entering at the top of the funnel, via the Department of Defense (DoD), are millions of predominantly poor or working-class men and women who join the global war machine.

Hundreds of thousands end up in a world of hurt themselves. Their later need for disability benefits or health care — what in the civilian world would be called “workers’ compensation” — is met, at the other end of the funnel, by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Yet despite the global disasters conjured up within its walls, the DoD has a far bigger fan club on Capitol Hill than the VA, whose caregiving Veterans Health Administration (VHA) is a continual target of bipartisan political attacks, privatization schemes, and underfunding.

When the DoD (or the White House acting on its behalf) asks for a bigger budget, the House and Senate — with few dissenters — vie for which body can allocate more money faster.

On June 12, the House passed a military spending bill that would give the Pentagon another $733 billion. According to the New York Times, moderate Democrats were “reluctant to cut that number” because it was less than the $750 billion annual budget previously approved by the Republican-controlled Senate.

In the House Democratic caucus, among those carrying the ball for the DoD was Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy pilot elected last year. She criticized her liberal colleagues for not believing “in a muscular foreign policy and muscular national defense like I do.” Meanwhile, even the military veterans like Sherill — who sit in Congress because of “service candidate” recruitment by both parties — tend to be far less “muscular” in their defense of the VHA.

In 2018, Democrats on the Hill helped conservative Republicans and the Trump administration pass the VA MISSION Act. As currently being implemented, this legislation will siphon billions of dollars away from the VHA’s budget and direct that money toward private doctors and for-profit hospitals often ill-prepared to treat veterans.

As the VHA is starved of needed funding, its staffing levels will further decline and then its nationwide network of public hospitals and clinics will be dismantled. (According to union estimates, there are already 49,000 existing vacancies.)

Rather than expanding veterans’ access to high-quality care, Republicans — backed by the Koch Brothers–funded Concerned Veterans for America — and their Democratic Party enablers are laying the groundwork for the complete privatization of veterans’ health care.

Under the guise of saving taxpayers money and giving veterans more “choice,” these bipartisan opponents of Medicare for All want our best working model of single-payer health care to become a poster child for its “failure.”

On the Left, Medicare for All advocates like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez well understand this threat to health care reform for everyone. Sanders has long championed veterans’ health care improvements in Vermont and nationally when he was chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. Ocasio-Cortez recently joined forces with Veterans for Peace and VHA nurses, who work in the Bronx, to hold a protest meeting against privatization in her own district.

Far more socialists should get involved in this struggle because, as VHA unions point out, there is much at stake for nine million veterans and their unionized caregivers. It is both a labor and a health care campaign.

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