The Trump administration is moving ahead with an effort to help more military veterans receive health care services away from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Milwaukee labor and vets groups have been arguing against the change for months, even holding a snowy protest on Veterans Day outside the VA hospital in West Milwaukee. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie weighed in on the dispute Wednesday from Washington.
On Nov. 11, a passing car driver gave a supportive honk, as about a half-dozen protestors gathered on a sidewalk near the entrance to the parking lot of the Zablocki VA Medical Center. In the group was Mark Foreman, of Veterans for Peace, who was severely wounded in Vietnam in 1968.
"When I started coming to the VA for medical services back in 1970, it was not much fun coming here —because the doctors, the nurses, the whole staff knew very little about post-traumatic stress disorder," Foreman said. But he quickly added, “We have learned so much about it since then. And now, the VA is a very welcoming, extremely professional medical system."
In fact, Foreman says the Milwaukee VA is the best hospital in which he's ever been. So, he says he's worried that a law passed last year, called the VA Mission Act, will lower the quality of care at Zablocki. The law allows a sizable increase in the number of veterans who'll be able to use a private health care provider and then bill the Veterans Administration.
Foreman says many private providers don't know enough about the needs of veterans, and just view the vets as revenue.
"There are 9 million of us veterans in the U.S. that go to the VA every year for health care. I believe the private health care industry see us as a huge potential money-makin' deal for them," Foreman said.
When WUWM asked the local VA hospital to comment on Foreman's concerns, word soon came back that VA Secretary Robert Wilkie would chat with us. Wilkie told us the Mission Act tries to expand veterans' access to health care.
"It says, that if a veteran lives too far away from a VA facility, or, if we don't have the medical service that veteran requires, then we give that veteran the option of going into the private sector," Wilkie said.
He says the Mission Act, also, for the first time, gives veterans access to what are known as urgent care facilities.
"Why is that important? First, it gives them something their neighbors have. It also keeps them out of the emergency room for things like a cold or the flu or a sprained ankle," Wilkie said.
Wilkie says since the Mission Act was implemented six months ago, about 1.7 million vets nationally have been authorized to use private care. But he also says during that period, the number of appointments made for VA health care has gone up even more.
Veteran Mark Foreman responds that the way the VA budget is structured, more money to reimburse private care means less cash to hire needed people at places like the Zablocki Medical Center.
Also, a nurses union says morale is bad. Jamie Lucas represents nearly 900 VA registered nurses who are members of the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals.
"Over these last four years, I've seen a disturbing number of nurses who have broken down and cried in our office after being exhausted by a culture that stifles their input," Lucas said.
The Milwaukee Area Labor Council also says the Trump administration seems to be targeting another union at the VA, the American Federation of Government Employees.
Wilkie responds to morale and staffing concerns by saying that 110 nurses have been added at Zablocki over the last year.
"What tells me things are moving in the right direction is when I see, coming out of Zablocki, patient satisfaction rates at 91%," Wilkie said.
Wilkie says he's kept Wisconsin's U.S. Sens. Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin up-to-date on the situation. But Democrat Baldwin released a statement Wednesday afternoon that says, “While the hiring at the Milwaukee VA has helped, workers feel the VA is still understaffed, that they are stretched thin, and when there is an anti-union posture, people are going to feel like their hard work isn't respected.”
Baldwin urges the VA to work with local colleges to address the nursing shortage.
Wilkie says he has unprecedented authority for a Cabinet secretary, in the way of granting relocation and bonus pay. But he says there’s a lot of competition from the private sector for nurses and other health care personnel.
Wilkie promises to come back to Wisconsin at some point. But he mentions going to the Tomah VA Hospital, where there was a major controversy over opioid prescriptions.