Last Thursday both of Montana’s U.S. senators were in Missoula for a ceremony honoring the late David J. Thatcher, a World War Two veteran from the city who flew on the famous Doolittle Raid that struck Japan in retaliation for Pearl Harbor.
The ceremony was to put Thatcher’s name on a Veterans Administration health clinic; and veterans health is going to be a big issue this year as Congress gets back to work.
"Most of the work we’re going to do moving forward is oversight," said Sen. Jon Tester, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
That committee has a big role overseeing the VA, which runs more than 1,200 health clinics and hospitals nationwide. And a law signed last summer by President Trump gives the VA a bigger role in sending veterans to get health care in the private sector.
"We’ve got to make sure that the Mission Act is implemented correctly, as Congress intended, and that doesn’t mean privatize the VA," Tester said.
The Mission Act is Congress’s second attempt to make it easier for vets to get care in the private sector when there’s a long wait time to get into a VA clinic or hospital, or one of those facilities is far away. The first attempt, under the Obama administration was called VA Choice, and it hasn’t worked as intended.
"We’ve got to get the VA Mission, the VA Choice, that is the highest priority, to get that working for our veterans," said Republican Sen. Steve Daines.
Choice didn’t work very well because it was rolled out so rapidly in response to the 2014 scandal over records that were falsified to make patient wait times look shorter at VA facilities in Phoenix and elsewhere. Congress set aside $10 billion to help veterans get private sector care, and then tried to hire a contractor to oversee the new program within 90 days. Most big healthcare administration companies were put off by the short timeline, so the contracts were awarded without bids, and both veterans and the private healthcare providers they went to see complained loudly about it just plain not working.
It’s now up to President Trump’s second Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Robert Wilkie, to make the replacement for Choice, the VA Mission Act, work better.
"I’ve known Secretary Wilkie before he was the VA secretary, in fact I spent a few days with him in Israel on a trip looking at security issues. Robert Wilkie is a good man," Daines said. "He's got a tough job. He's got the right head, he's very smart, he's got a great heart here of care and compassion for our veterans, I like that combination. He's also a guy that's not afraid to get his hands dirty, get out there in the field. He’s got a great big bureaucratic ship he’s got to turn, though, in the VA."
Sen. Tester, though, has been getting frustrated with Secretary Wilkie in the seven months since he was sworn in to run the VA. Tester played a big role in getting the Mission Act passed, and he says now, it looks like Wilkie is veering away from Congress’ intent with the law, which was to help vets, but also keep the VA health system strong.
"And I think what the Secretary did was put forth standards that could easily privatize the VA," Tester said. "And I'm going to tell you something, the veteranss don't want that. The veterans like VA care. And if so if we privatize the VA, we’re not doing justice to the veterans in this country."
Secretary Wilkie has testified before Congress that he doesn’t want to privatize the VA, but Sen. Tester and other Congressional Democrats have become frustrated at what they say is a lack of responsiveness from the VA. They’ve sent letters asking to be more involved in rulemaking around implementation of the Mission Act, and saying they and their staffs are not being briefed or consulted sufficiently.
I asked Sen. Tester if he thinks the Mission Act could be a threat to VA clinics like the one he and Sen. Daines were at in Missoula Thursday.
"If it’s implemented incorrectly it could be," he said. "Now, we’re working on getting a bigger facility here, and they need it and need it badly. VA Montana’s understaffed, they don’t have enough doctors and nurses, not enough administrative personnel. We’re pushing them hard to make sure that that happens."
Sen. Daines agrees that understaffing in the Montana VA system is a problem that needs progress, and he says he hopes the Mission Act will result in the private sector complimenting well run VA clinics, so that vets who live far away from them can get care more easily.
That was Congress’s intent when it passed the Choice Act that President Obama signed, now it has a chance to see if it can do better under President Trump.