BY JOE CONASON
Whenever Donald Trump fires a member of his administration, the least likely reason is incompetence, corruption, abuse of authority or wasteful extravagance. If those were causes for dismissal in the Trump Administration, nearly his entire cabinet would have been replaced by now. That tweet signaling the removal of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin – an Obama Administration holdover widely regarded as one of the few able appointees in the cabinet – wasn’t provoked by any such offense.
The real trouble with Shulkin, as he informed the country on his way out, was his determination to stand up against a scheme fronted by the billionaire Koch Brothers to “privatize” the VA health system, a $200 billion public enterprise that currently serves the needs of nine million veterans. Even worse, Shulkin achieved enough success in providing and improving care to win the approval of 70% of the nation’s former service members.
If you ask veterans whether the VA should be privatized, the answer is overwhelmingly no. And if you survey the nation’s many veterans’ organizations, the response is unanimously negative as well, with the single exception of an outfit called “Concerned Veterans of America” – which is financed by the Koch brothers’ political network.
Unfortunately for those who have served the country in uniform, the Koch network has contrived to place political operatives from “Concerned Veterans” in key positions at the VA. It was those operatives, dedicated to the Koch agenda, who helped to undermine and eventually remove Shulkin.
As for Trump, is anybody still surprised that his campaign pledge to provide the very best medical services for veterans was a fraud? By replacing Shulkin with Dr. Ronny Jackson, his personal physician, who lacks any experience or qualifications to run the VA, the president proved just how little he cares about this vital government program. In effect, he sacrificed veterans to the whims of the Koch Brothers.
Known as the country’s biggest financiers of right-wing officials, organizations and think tanks, Charles and David Koch relentlessly promote their ideological and commercial interests [which generally coincide]. They’re especially notorious for sponsoring politicians who will allow their continued destruction of the planet in pursuit of oil and coal profits. This is an understandable if despicable approach to politics.
But why are the Kochs so determined to dismantle the VA, one of the most popular and effective federal programs in history? Perhaps they have a secret plan to profit from privatizing veterans’ health care. Or perhaps their urge to destroy the VA is precisely because it has worked well. They openly hate government, which stands in the way of complete corporate domination of democratic society, and that may be reason enough. Whatever their motives, privatization poses a severe threat to veterans and ought to be opposed by every patriotic American.
Historically, the VA has provided both excellent care, as it did when the Clinton Administration advanced its technological capacities, and less excellent care, as it did in the turbulent wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. And it is true that some veterans – who live far from VA facilities or confront long delays in obtaining ordinary medical services – could benefit from a system like Medicare that allows them to use nearby private doctors and hospitals.
Yet over the decades, the VA has addressed the traumatic injuries, mental illness and substance abuse suffering inflicted by war with dedicated services that the private sector will never match. That is why the VA Commission on Care, a bipartisan panel of top health care experts, issued a report in June 2016 that firmly rejected the privatization option. That is also why privatization has met with tough skepticism among elected officials of both parties.
To disrupt or even destroy those essential services with an ill-conceived ideological notion of “reform” would be to harm millions of veterans irreparably. It is hard to imagine a worse betrayal of their sacrifice.
– Joe Conason’s columns appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer