TUCSON – Veteran Affairs employees across the country are holding rallies and meetings to inform the public about current contract negotiations. This comes after reports surfaced that the White House may turn veterans’ health care into a private health care system run by the Defense Department.
On Wednesday, members of Veterans for Peace marched to Second Avenue and Ajo Way, right in front of the VA. They say they do not want to be privatized.
“Little by little, they’re trying to dissolve the VA hospital so they can privatize it,” said Jose Ortiz, union president for Local 0495 AFGE.
News 4 Tucson reached out to officials at the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs who said in part that the VA privatization is a “myth” and that the VA is seeing more patients and has more employees than ever before.
“Right now, there are 389 vacancies in the VA hospital in Tucson,” Ortiz said, “There’s over a 1,000 vacancies Arizona-wide.”
According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, there are over 45,000 vacancies throughout the U.S. in the VA system.
U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie said he has already presented a $220 billion budget. He said 10 years ago, that budget was only $98 billion.
“I’ve had a bad experience and I know that the best quality of care is here at the VA High Care Center,” said Henry Trejo, representative of the Alliance for Retired Americans when asked his views on privatized health care.
In late May, the American Federation of Government Employees began negotiations with the VA over a new labor contract that would cover 260,000 VA employees nationwide. VA officials said they are working with the AFGE in contract negotiations and hope to improve medical care and customer service.
Here’s the VA’s full statement:
Whether through its condemnation of the MISSION Act or its efforts to repeal the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, AFGE has consistently fought for the status quo and opposed attempts to make VA work better for Veterans and their families. Now AFGE is taking the same approach with its refusal to accept commonsense improvements to its collective bargaining agreement. Here are the facts:
VA is working to renegotiate its contract with AFGE in order to improve medical care, customer service, and staff accountability while maximizing value for Veterans and taxpayers. VA’s proposals include a number of significant changes, including:
- Reducing taxpayer-funded union time for VA/AFGE employees from more than one million hours per yearto 10,000 hours per year – redirecting more than $48 million per year back to direct services and medical care for Veterans
- Empowering front line supervisors
- Streamlining the hiring and job classification process – potentially reducing the time it takes to hire certain positions by weeks or months
- Ensuring the contract doesn’t interfere with the VA’s ability to take action under the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act, the MISSION Act and the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act
As Sec. Wilkie said: “It’s time for a reset in VA’s approach to labor-management relations. A reluctance to challenge the status quo produced the current agreement, which includes many benefits that favor the union rather than the Veterans we are charged with serving. With VA facing thousands of vacancies, these proposals could add more than one million man-hours per year back into our work force – a vital influx of resources that would make an almost immediate difference for Veterans and the employees who care for them. These proposals make clear that service to Veterans must come first in all that we do, and I look forward to working with AFGE to ensure we achieve that goal.”
Regarding the VA Privatization Myth
As Sec. Wilkie said: “Well, I just presented a $220 billion budget, a budget that also calls for an employee base of 390,000. Ten years ago, the budget was 98 billion, and we had 280,000 employees. So if we’re going about privatizing this, we’re going about it in a very strange way.”