James Walker: Veterans? Privatizing health care not the answer

James Walker, New Haven Register.

James Walker, New Haven Register.

Like many veterans and advocates of veterans health care, I am carefully following the conversation as to whether the VA should privatize its health care.

And as a veteran, I am concerned.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation Wednesday that would allow more veterans to see doctors outside the Veterans Affairs system.

The bill, called the VA MISSION Act, would allow more veterans to use private-sector doctors when VA medical centers can’t provide appointments within a 30-day period; veterans have to drive more than 40 minutes to access care; or when care is determined inadequate by VA leaders.

Getting veterans help at outside facilities was going to be the topic of a column I was writing for Veterans Day last year when I reversed course and turned my attention to sexual harassment and the women in my family.

I was going to write that doctors and health care facilities should pitch in and help the VA, which is clearly overwhelmed and struggling without the resources it needs to provide veterans with all the care they deserve.

We’ve all seen photos of deplorable conditions at some VA hospitals and we’ve read the horror stories of veterans dying while waiting for services. So, it’s no secret the VA health care system is falling short providing services to veterans in a timely manner.

Still, in my estimation, privatizing VA hospitals would be a psychological uppercut to veterans everywhere.

And for good reasons.

For many veterans, VA hospitals are the only safe refuge — and much of that feeling of security is having the comfort of fellow veterans around you.

Veterans are not patients when they walk into the VA hospital but symbols of American patriotism and courage.

Once out of the military, VA hospitals are one of the few places where veterans have something in common with every person being treated there.

And that provides a lot of psychological comfort for a veteran that cannot be matched at private hospitals that are not designed to meet the physical and psychological challenges of treating veterans.

At VA hospitals, veterans worry about getting better and not the avalanche of bills that follow getting medical care.

The VA does have a lot of the problems. The hospitals are old, dowdy and coldly clinical but the warmth comes in the service and the deference paid to veterans.

And never will you convince me that if veterans were put in the hands of the private sector, they would be treated with that same deference shown by VA staff.

VA hospitals are not Wall Street entities and shouldn’t be treated as such.

But veterans are shareholders in a Veterans Affairs system that is in need of help — not a takeover.

Erected outside of veterans facilities is a sign that reads “The price of freedom is visible here.”

That is not just a slogan but a reality that veterans — battle-tested or not — know, have witnessed and understand.

Like the Halls of Congress are sacred grounds to politicians, the halls of the VA hospitals are sacred grounds, too.

Only an exclusive group of men and women — the few, the proud and the brave of the armed forces of the United States — are invited in.

And America should keep it that way.

Veterans? Privatizing health care is not the answer.