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Rep. Steve Buyer Pushes for VA run by Political Appointees

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Representative Steve Buyer (R-IN) has what he thinks is a great idea. He wants to run the Department of Veterans' Affairs (VA) like a business. Buyer, who is Chairman of the powerful House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, sees no problem with this concept.

Buyer, armed with big business catch-phrases like "improve the revenue-enhancement cycle," "efficiencies and standardization" and "private entities in the marketplace," has laid out a bold new plan to turn the VA into an HMO for veterans while loading it with political cronies. This is detailed in an interview published in the February 2006 edition of The American Legion Magazine.

Buyer's main argument is that the VA should be run like a business. As a member of the House of Representatives, it should be clear to Buyer that the VA is a government agency designed to provide benefits to veterans. In simple language this means it costs money to run and that money is provided by the government.

But, Buyer has a different plan. Citing "revenue-enhancement" as being critical to a healthy VA, Buyer said, "Right now, we're losing money in this proposition. We have to think and be more like a business"That's why I support things like an enrollment fee and deductibles and co-pays. These are extremely important aspects of running it more like a business." The literal translation is that Buyer wants veterans to pay for their healthcare.

This is not news to most veterans. Buyer's anti-veteran agenda is well-known. Last year he stated, "While some veterans' organizations like to create a theme, that 'A veteran is a veteran [and] there is no difference,' I disagree."

Buyer has pushed his "a veteran is not a veteran" concept by claiming that the core constituency of the VA is "disabled and indigent" veterans. Where does he get this? From ultra-conservative think-tanks and Republican talking-points. Buyer now claims "the intent of Congress" was not to grant veterans' benefits at the current level. He is claiming that Congress didn't know what it was doing when it passed veterans' benefits legislation.

If you've ever read a piece of legislation it should be perfectly clear that Congress knew exactly what it was doing when it mandated veterans' benefits. But Buyer, with the help of a Republican-controlled Congress and the White House, is trying to undo that.

Which veterans would have to pay for VA healthcare? The "disabled and indigent?" In this latest interview Buyer did not stipulate one way or the other. But, I will do him a favor and make the assumption that his so-called "core constituency" of "disabled and indigent" veterans would not have to pay, leaving all other veterans to pick up the tab. I hope that assumption is correct. Although, that may not be so.

Last year, Buyer was asked about the work of the Republican-controlled Veterans' Disability Benefits Commission, now studying veterans' benefits and compensation. The charter of the commission tasks them with determining "whether a disability or death of a veteran should be compensated," an immoral question if ever there was one. Buyer's response to what veterans' benefits they should consider revising was, "I think everything should be on the table."

Why this and why now? The VA costs money. Because of tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans and the high cost of the long-running Iraq War, Republican lawmakers are scrambling to find ways to cut the budget.

Buyer also sees a more efficient VA if it were run by political appointees. I guess that means like FEMA, don't you think? Buyer said, "I also believe that VA should be brought on equal par with other federal departments and have the same number of political appointments. It is bizarre to me that we have penalized VA and handed over the reins to the bureaucracy."

The problem with this line of reasoning is that the VA, although plagued by chronic underfunding caused by Buyer and his fellow Republicans, is rated as the best healthcare system in the country. Who did this? The "bureaucracy" of which Buyer speaks.

With the "bureaucracy" at the reins, the VA has earned kudos from veterans and other healthcare systems as a model to be emulated. The VA's most recent customer satisfaction survey, released last week, shows the VA rated far above any other healthcare system. This is because of the hard work of the professional VA workers like hospital directors, doctors, nurses, technicians, clerks and others who give so much to veterans.

But, Buyer wants to put an end to that and replace the "bureaucracy" with political appointees. Buyer stated, "There is too much autonomy right now within the VA health-care system. You have hospital directors"out there who like to do their own thing and are very resistant to centralized management, where we can bring efficiencies and standardization." Buyer meant to say, "Where we can have political control."

Buyer has already taken a first step toward making the VA an arm of the Republican Party. Thanks to Buyer's hard work, the VA's Information Technology (IT) department is now controlled by a political appointee. The Chief Information Officer, Robert McFarland, has complete control over the VA's IT resources including hardware, software, personnel and a $2-plus billion annual budget. McFarland's qualifications? He is a good Republican and used to sell Dell computers to government agencies.

The plans laid out in this interview should scare the hell out of veterans. Rep. Steve Buyer has come out and told us that he wants political control of the nation's largest healthcare system.

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Larry Scott served four years in the U.S. Army with overseas tours as a Broadcast Journalist in Korea and the Azores and a stateside tour as a Broadcast Journalism Instructor at the Defense Information School (DINFOS). He was awarded DOD's First Place Thomas Jefferson Award for (more...)
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