By Alma Lee
Lee is President of the AFGE National Veterans Affairs Council headquartered in Salem. Lee represents 260,000 workers at the Department of Veterans Affairs nationwide. She has been an employee at the Department of Veterans Affairs for more than three decades.
I have spent much of the last two months in a closed-door conference room, seated around a table with Trump administration lawyers and Secretary of Affairs appointees from the Department of Veterans Affairs. We were there for what should have been a direct conversation in good faith, renewing the union contract between the VA and its 260,000 hardworking employees, who I represent as president of the American Federation of Government Employees’ National Veterans Affairs Council.
But it wasn’t as straightforward as it should have been. The Trump administration is quietly plotting to gut all of the worker rights and protections we have previously negotiated, as part of a larger effort to privatize the VA.
We’ve seen this movie before: Many of the VA’s proposals are lookalike anti-labor policies Trump attempted to implement government-wide last year through three executive orders. But this time there’s a new and frankly terrifying twist: This latest Trump administration plot not only strips VA workers of their rights, it also threatens quality care for veterans, and paves the way for a scheme to outsource and privatize veterans’ health care.
First, the Trump proposal sets up VA employees to fail and will lead to worse care for our veterans. The reality is that only VA employees are specially trained and qualified to provide the specialized care that veterans require. But by shifting resources for veterans away from the VA as this proposal does, veterans simply won’t be able to get the high quality of care they deserve and will be forced to seek care elsewhere with less-qualified health care providers.
Even worse, there are currently over 50,000 vacant positions that the VA has failed to fill – the majority of which are doctors, nurses and other health care positions. This proposal not only fails to address these critical vacancies but makes the VA a far less attractive place to work by cutting benefits across the board. Ultimately, this will hurt the quality of care our veterans rely on.
Second, privatizing the VA would also imperil future discoveries and medical advancements that benefit not only veterans, but all health care consumers. VA employees have pioneered groundbreaking treatments for traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injuries, post-traumatic stress and other ailments that are far more common among veterans than the general population.
These innovative treatments have an impact far beyond veterans. The VA pioneered the first liver transplant, invented the cardiac pacemaker, developed the nicotine patch, found that a daily dose of aspirin reduces heart attack deaths, engineered bionic ankle-foot prosthesis, and showed the effectiveness of vaccinating against shingles. If we are committed to improving health for all Americans, we must be committed to the VA and its workers.
Third, an attack on VA workers is an attack on veterans, as one-third of employees working at the VA are veterans themselves. Additionally, many of the commonsense worker protections the Trump administration is attempting to abolish, protect not only VA workers, but their patients, as well.
For example, the Trump scheme eliminates safeguards that ensure whistleblowers are protected from retaliation for standing up for veterans. The scheme abolishes guarantees that VA employees are adequately trained so that veterans always receive the same high standard of care. And the scheme eliminates workplace safety protections that provide veterans and VA workers alike with a safe and secure place to work and to receive care.
Serving in the VA’s nursing service, I worked in the drug and alcohol unit, the geriatric unit, and the psychiatric unit. I’ve seen firsthand that the No. 1 priority for VA workers across the system is to give every veteran who walks through the door the care that they need.
The current president of the United States and the U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie are putting the health of our nation’s veterans at risk to make a political point which is dangerous, unconscionable, unprecedented, and unpresidential.