With a full room of Legionnaires listening, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester had strong words for any individuals or organizations hoping to privatize the Department of Veterans Affairs: Don’t expect it to happen without a fight.
“Let me be clear: Standing alongside The American Legion and millions of veterans across this country, I will always fight every attempt to privatize the VA,” Tester told attendees at the Washington Conference’s Commander’s Call on Feb. 27. “To those special interests that want to put the VA on a path to privatization, I have just one message: You’re going to have to get past me and past the hundreds of veterans in this room before you’re able to do that.”
Tester, the Ranking Member on the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said privatization would have a negative effect on multiple levels. “Privatizing the VA will be more costly to taxpayers,” he said. “Doing it will slowly strip away from the resources and benefits available to veterans until only a skeleton of the health-care structure remains and becomes just another insurance program.
“Special interests, political appointees, key positions are doing their best – some of them – to put the VA on this dangerous path. Sending a dramatic increase of veterans into the private system that isn’t equipped to handle such an influx and doesn’t offer specialized veteran-specific care is not what veterans deserve. And it is not what you have earned through your service. It is, in fact, a recipe for disaster.”
Tester expressed support for VA Secretary David Shulkin in the wake of Shulkin’s recently travel scandal, but added that members of Congress must hold VA leadership accountable in such situations.
“The secretary made a mistake, and he has taken some steps to do right by the American taxpayers,” Tester said. “As Ranking Member, I’ve visited with Secretary Shulkin. I told him I would be holding his feet to the fire to make sure that this kind of behavior never happens again. We have pressing and urgent issues concerning veterans health care before us. We cannot afford to let these efforts get derailed or jeopardized by the actions of him or any other unelected political appointee that were sent there to … serve our veterans.”
Tester said VA must be properly funded in order to fulfill its mission. “I do not support starving from financial and human resources,” he said. “I do not support diverting critical funds that make it more difficult for the VA to meet the immediate and long-term needs of veterans. And I do not support using struggling facilities as an excuse to close them.”
Tester said he was proud to partner with the Legion and praised the organization for its support in passing key legislation, such as VA appeals modernization and GI Bill measures.
“Together we accomplished a lot over the past year,” he said. “We got eight bipartisan reform bills signed into law. The American Legion has been instrumental in getting these bills across the finish line. In some cases, these laws are a direct result on your hard work.”
In closing, Tester asked for the Legion’s assistance in monitoring VA’s progress. “The American Legion can provide critical insight into how the VA is doing: if it’s using its tools appropriately, or if it’s not using them all,” he said. “I need to know.”