Vietnam veteran Bob Feldmann who is involved with Veterans for Peace, demonstrates Thursday outside the VA hospital in Asheville, against congressional legislation that opponents say will privatize veterans health services. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

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A bill to reform the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is getting decidedly mixed reviews from North Carolina veterans, including a group who protested outside the Charles George V.A. Medical Center in Asheville last week.

Co-sponsored by Republican North Carolina Congressman Mark Meadows, the Veterans Empowerment Act was introduced in November by U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado.

The legislation would change several functions of the Veterans Health Administration, including the creation of the VetsCare program, which would function as an insurance program allowing veterans to receive federally funded healthcare outside of the VA system.

Last week’s demonstrators said the bill would threaten to privatize VA services and worry that those changes will further erode the level of care available to veterans.

But supporters of the measure describe the changes as giving veterans more choices in where they receive medical treatment.

Members of the Asheville chapter of Veterans for Peace and the newly formed group Carolina Veterans Peace Coalition, based in Hendersonville, stood at the entrance of the Charles George VA Medical Center on Thursday, holding signs that urged veterans to take a stand against the bill, which has been in the House Subcommittee on Military Personnel since December.

Marine Corps veteran Gerry Werhan, president of the Asheville chapter of Veterans for Peace, described the current VA healthcare system as “second to none.”

“The vast majority of veterans who use the VA Healthcare System know the quality of care and respect veterans receive when they walk in the doors of a VA medical facility,” Werhan said in a statement issued ahead of the demonstration.

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Brandy Morris, right, a Buncombe County union leader with the American Federation of Government Employees, demonstrates against proposed legislation outside the VA hospital in Asheville on Thursday with her daughter, Addie. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

Controversial proposal

The concept of giving veterans the choice to seek healthcare providers outside of the VA system was championed by President Donald Trump through his campaign and during his time in office. Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, who also served in the administration of President Barack Obama, was fired from his position in March Shortly after leaving office, Shulkin criticized the Trump administration’s plans for the VA system in a New York Times opinion piece.

The VA has been criticized by Trump for the long waiting periods some veterans experience when seeking care, but a spokeswoman for the administration told reporters in March that there are no plans to privatize the VA.

Both the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars organizations have been publicly critical of efforts to privatize aspects of the VA. VFW National Commander Keith Harman said in a November press release about the group’s opposition to the bill that veterans already have access to “the best integrated health care system in the world” through the VA, and that the Veterans Empowerment Act would shift some healthcare costs onto veterans through a new copayment system. Harman said veterans aren’t responsible for copayments in the system as it stands today.

“Shifting finite resources to the private sector will only signal the beginning of the end of a federal department that was created for the sole purpose of caring for America’s veterans,” Harman said. “The private sector can augment the VA but never replace it…”

Not all veterans opposed

Some veterans advocates see the situation as more complicated with the VA currently not meeting the needs of all veterans equally.

Alex Patton, the veterans services officer for Lincoln County, is an Army veterans and the former chairman of the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners. He told Carolina Public Press that the answer to the problems the Veterans Empowerment Act seeks to solve “lies somewhere in the middle” between expanding veteran access to providers outside of the VA system and expanding the services offered by the government.

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“For many veterans who have access to VA services nearby, certainly they do not want it changed,” Patton said. “For those who are hours away from a VA facility, they would love for the VA to let them use a local doctor without it taking a year for the doctor to get paid. I see veterans weekly who were authorized to use local care and then get billed for the care. It takes us forever to get it corrected.

“As our war veterans are getting older, it becomes more difficult for them to drive two hours to the VA hospital when they could utilize their local doctor and receive treatment for most issues. So either the VA has to be fully funded, new facilities added and staff hired to handle the caseload, or allow veterans to use the family doctors many have used for years and let the V.A. pay for it.

“It seems abundantly easy to me to come up with a viable insurance card and let veterans go wherever they get the best care. It would force everyone to provide better service to stay in business.

“That may be an over-simplistic view, but it seems to me that is the only way to solve the problem. Veterans are divided on this issue and are passionate on both sides. Just like most things, the answer lies somewhere in the middle,” Patton said.

Michael Gebelein

Michael Gebelein was an investigative reporter with Carolina Public Press. To contact Carolina Public Press, email info@carolinapublicpress.org or call 828-774-5290.

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