Op-Ed: Veteran Wants VA System Saved
By Ellen Barfield, U.S. Army Sergeant

Here just after observing Armistice Day to mark 100 years since the end of WWI, and to mourn death and suffering, instead of glorifying war and using veterans as ad copy to sell consumer goods, a particular imperative is to fulfill the promise made to veterans to care for them after their service. Sadly, Veterans Health Administration services are at great risk today.

The ongoing push by President Trump and the billionaire Koch brothers, salivating at the prospect of throwing military veterans into the dysfunctional and fragmented U.S. health “care” system and further enriching corporate medicine at taxpayers’ expense, is really frightening to us veterans. The Kochs and others created and massively fund the faux organization “Concerned Veterans for America” to condemn the VA for real problems, mostly long appointment wait times caused by underfunding and understaffing, and demand privatized marketplace veteran “care.”

The recent VA MISSION Act seems to be to help vets who live far away from VA facilities or face long waits for appointments by providing vouchers for private care, but paying for it requires cutting other VA services.

The VA is so much more than just a doctor’s office. Not only outpatient visits to all kinds of doctors at one facility, but inpatient care, housing and extended care services for the elderly, help for family caregivers, services and job placement for homeless veterans, and veterans are disproportionately homeless.

I joined the Army in 1977 to get the money to finish college, not at that time thinking about veterans’ health care. But now as I get older and more in need of medical attention, I am so glad it exists.

I have gotten virtually all my health care at the Baltimore, MD, Greene St. VA Hospital for over 20 years. It’s not perfect, but it’s quite good. I have had the same woman primary care doctor for all that time. She has shepherded me through endocrine, dermatological, neurological, emotional, and skeletal issues, fortunately all fairly minor so far. She refers me to other VA doctors and therapists in the same facility, who have instant access to my medical records.

As a woman I have been pleased to see the too slow, but steady, progress the VA has made recognizing women veterans’ particular needs, such as growing ability to be isolated from the swarms of men in women-only sections, and recognition that sexual assault in the military is sadly far too common and may be a part of what is going on for a woman veteran. And just providing care only women need like gynecological exams, reproductive cancer screenings, and such.

Sometimes outside care is needed. No single system can cover absolutely everything. When I developed spasmodic dysphonia–the vocal cord movement disorder like Diane Rehm from NPR– I was pleasantly surprised that the VA paid for me to get the periodic botox shot into my vocal chords from non-VA doctors because the condition is rare, and the skill to do the procedure is also rare. But the Baltimore VA now has a doctor who can do the injection, so I’m back.

One of the best things about VA care is that negotiation for affordable drug prices by this big system means all medications are provided for a low set rate for all VA patients, to a maximum of $11 for a month’s supply, usually less. Those who are disabled by combat and receive compensation pay nothing for their medicines or their care.

The answer to long wait times is not being thrown into the private medical arena, but funding hiring to fill over 40,000 VA staff vacancies across the nation. Veterans have particular needs which the VA has developed programs to meet. Scattered and uninformed private providers cannot possibly give equal quality care, certainly not as cost effectively.

And for civilians who want comprehensive, affordable or free care like veterans get at the VA? Yes, everyone should get such care. It’s called Single Payer, Improved Medicare for All, socialized medicine if you wish, and it works pretty well. That’s why the Kochs and Trump are attacking it. It’s far too good an example.

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Ellen Barfield

Ellen Barfield is a U.S. Army Sergeant