VA Colluding with Union to Promote Anti-Reform Rally

Federal employee union protesting efforts to fix veterans’ healthcare

VA Medical Center
VA Medical Center in Florida / AP
June 30, 2016

An official at a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital is helping the largest federal employee union oppose efforts to reform the agency’s network of hospitals.

The public affairs officer at the Cheyenne VA Medical Center in Wyoming has advertised a rally organized by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) next week to protest recommendations made by members of an independent commission that would overhaul VA healthcare, according to internal communications obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

"I wanted to make sure you were aware that the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) is planning a ‘Keep the Promise to Veterans Rally’ outside the Cheyenne VA gates, on July 6 from 0700-0900 to protest the Commission on Care’s proposed recommendations," Samuel House, public affairs officer at the Cheyenne VA Medical Center, wrote in a "message to Cheyenne VA partners" last Friday sent to an unknown email list.

AFGE has organized more than three-dozen rallies outside VA hospitals across the nation in recent weeks to protest efforts to "privatize" veterans’ healthcare. The union has taken issue with proposed recommendations from members of the Commission on Care, a 15-member independent panel convened to examine VA healthcare and propose ways to fix it. The commission was established by Congress through legislation enacted following the 2014 wait list scandal.

Advocates for reform at the VA pointed to the email as evidence that VA officials are advancing the interests of government unions while ignoring the needs of the nation’s veterans.

"It is no secret that the VA works hand-in-glove with government unions like AFGE," Dan Caldwell, vice president for legislative and political action at Concerned Veterans for America, told the Free Beacon. "What is unfortunate, however, is the VA’s clear commitment to advancing unions’ interests even at the expense of veterans."

"Instead of devoting time and effort to pursuing meaningful reforms at the department, VA employees are, on taxpayers’ dime, promoting union events and fighting the very reforms that would make the VA more responsive to veterans’ needs," Caldwell, a Marine Corps veteran, continued. "This relationship may benefit union members, but it is toxic for our veterans."

Earlier this year, seven members of the Commission on Care released a 34-page document recommending "immediate drastic change" at the VA’s network of hospitals. The members of the commission recommended that veterans be given the ability to choose between seeking care with VA providers or other providers within their community. The plan would also result in the closure of numerous VA facilities, the document explained.

"It has become well recognized that the VHA is in a state of crisis, and as a result, our deserving veterans are not receiving the medical care and related services they need. This crisis is exemplified in a number of urgent challenges. The Commission finds significant gaps in staffing, leadership and governance; facilities and capital needs; data and information systems; operations and processes," the seven commission members wrote in the document.

According to a Gallup survey released in March, roughly nine in 10 Americans believe veterans should be able to get healthcare from any provider that accepts Medicare, not just VA medical facilities.

The commission is expected to deliver its finalized recommendations to Congress, President Obama, and VA Secretary Robert McDonald by June 30.

The Cheyenne VA official noted in the email the medical center’s commitment to giving veterans access to high quality healthcare. He also emphasized the hospital’s "well-documented collaborative and proactive partnership with our employees and their union."

"The Cheyenne VA respects the union and shares their commitment to federal workers," he wrote.

House told the the Free Beacon Cheyenne VA has a "wonderful relationship" with its unions.

"The Cheyenne VA Medical Center has a wonderful relationship with our unions and we honor and respect their right to rally," House said. "The 'Keep Our Promise to Veterans' movement has been seen at other VA medical centers across the nation, and we consider ourselves very fortunate to have passionate individuals working with us."

AFGE, which represents 230,000 VA doctors, nurses, and officials, has balked at congressional efforts to hold VA employees accountable for misconduct. The union opposed the VA Accountability Act introduced by Republican lawmakers last year, legislation that would have given McDonald the power to remove or demote a VA employee for misconduct or poor performance.

Rep. Jeff Miller (R., Fla.), chair of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, told the Free Beacon last year that McDonald refused to support the legislation because of pressure from labor unions.

"There are a quarter of a million union members that work for the Department of Veterans Affairs. They have a stranglehold not only on the agency but the leadership there as well," Miller said in October.

President Obama also threatened to veto the legislation, and said it would create "a disparity in the treatment of one group of career civil servants."

Insufficient care and waits have persisted at VA facilities across the country in the two years after staffers were discovered keeping secret wait lists at the Phoenix VA hospital despite congressional efforts. Multiple investigations from the VA inspector general have pointed to continuing insufficiencies and wait-time manipulation at VA medical facilities.

The Cheyenne VA Medical Center was one of several facilities reviewed by the department’s watchdog in June 2014 regarding allegations of patient appointment and wait time manipulations. The inspector general found evidence that a manager was cancelling veterans’ appointments and rescheduling them to make wait times appear shorter, according to a report released in April.