Tester raises concern over steps to privatize, outsource “every VA health care service”

Veterans in Missoula have expressed opposition to the philosophy of privatizing the VA, as has Sen. Jon Tester. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

Sen. Jon Tester has raised concerns over steps within the Department of Veterans Affairs that could lead the agency on a path toward privatization.

Tester in the past has opposed efforts to privatize the agency, though he now believes the agency’s implementation of the new VA MISSION Act could take it down that road.

“For more than a year, we all worked carefully with the White House and VA on the text of that bill,” Tester said. “Since that time, I’ve grown increasingly concerned with the department’s planned implementation of the new veterans community care program.”

Earlier this year, Congress passed the MISSION Act, allowing veterans and their doctors to choose where a veteran receives health care. Services like routine lab work and X-rays were almost always eligible for community care under the MISSION Act.

But Tester said the VA may now designate “every VA health care service” as eligible for community care. Outsourcing all types of VA care runs contrary to intent of the act Congress passed just seven months ago.

“We agreed to give the VA authority to decide exactly which services or categories of care should make veterans automatically eligible for care within the community,” Tester said. “Now that we’ve passed the MISSION Act, the VA has decided to head in what I believe is a completely different direction.”

Tester said recent congressional studies have found care within the VA system to be equal or better than general care within the community. Over the past few years, veterans who have attended several hearings with Tester in Montana have stated as much.

They’ve also made their resistance to privatization known.

“I am not somebody who wants to privatize the VA,” Tester said during one 2017 meeting with veterans in Missoula. “I think the VA backstop has to be there, and every veterans service organization we heard from back in February said the same thing – don’t privatize it.”

Tester maintained that position during during a joint hearing of the Senate and House Committee on Veterans Affairs with Secretary Robert Wilke.

Costs of privatizing care could cost up to $20 billion in the first five years, Tester suggested.

“We need to know what you’re doing and how much it’s going to cost,” Tester told Wilke. “You’re going to spend a whole lot of time and money sending veterans into the community for care that’s less timely and not as high in quality. It’s a bad deal for our taxpayers and it’s a bad deal for our veterans.”

Wilke said, “Veterans will always be at the center of any decision I make.”