Veterans Continue to Suffer After Trump's VA Privatization Becomes 'Unmitigated Disaster'

Veterans are still struggling to receive care as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) attempts to keep up with a massive privatization effort initiated by former President Donald Trump.

A report from political magazine The American Prospect detailed a number of shortcomings within the VA that continue to cause problems for veterans. This is being seen in an agency that has historically lacked many of the resources necessary to perform its duties.

One director of a major VA medical center told the Prospect: "This is an unmitigated disaster laid on top of another unmitigated disaster, the COVID-19 pandemic."

The former president began a push while still in office to outsource a significant portion of the agency. This was especially evident in the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), the component of the VA responsible for implementing health care programs for veterans.

At one point, the Trump administration left approximately 50,000 vacancies within the VHA, although the COVID-19 pandemic reportedly forced a number of these positions to be filled in 2020. Trump further signed into law a private sector health care program that translated into one of the largest privatization efforts in the federal government.

Additionally, the former head of the VA under Trump, Robert Wilkie, began a "human resources modernization" plan within the agency in 2018. This replaced many human resource positions with an online system, and as a result, local human resource offices within the VA were almost entirely eliminated.

This ultimately led to a "tremendous drop in access to care," according to the Prospect. A poll conducted by the outlet found that 92 percent of VA chiefs of staff believed the modernization plan had made things worse within the agency.

VHA pulmonologist Jason Kelley told the Prospect, "We have to wait for maybe six months for HR to do its part. HR can't even seem to do the most minor functions like making changes in an individual physician's status or processing approved merit pay."

Veterans Affairs
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is continuing to see struggles as privatization efforts initiated by former President Donald Trump continue. This has led to a massive problem within the agency's human resources department, leading to many veterans losing out on care. Here, the Veterans Affairs building in Washington, D.C., can be seen in 2019. Alastair Pike/Getty

Beyond human resources, though, problems are being seen in numerous other areas of the VA.

A report from the Veterans Healthcare Policy Institute stated that the Trump administration had "undermined recruiting and retention efforts by cracking down on labor protections and gutting employee benefits."

This includes keeping tabs on veterans with mental health issues, a task that is often not easy given the thinly stretched resources of the VA. One VA clinician stated in the report that "we know that veterans with a high risk for suicide do better as long as they are followed by the VA. But it takes a lot of effort to do that. If we were fully staffed, no one would complain, but staffing is so low that it is really hard to follow people and assess for suicidality."

Mental illness continues to be a significant problem within the department. The VA stated that 1.7 million veterans received treatment in a mental health facility in 2018, including 120,000 who were treated for schizophrenia.

However, even as the calls for reform and proper funding continue, the privatization efforts in the VA still appear to be going strong.

Despite being implemented by the prior president, President Joe Biden's administration and current VA head Denis McDonough have not stopped the modernization plan. However, a VA spokesperson told the Prospect that McDonough was "committed to improving the [human resources] process, the performance of which he believes is unacceptable."

As the issues among veterans continue, activist groups continue to urge Congress to provide the agency with further funding. The struggle comes as the VA reported a new daily high in the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations among veterans on Tuesday.

The VA in total has reportedly seen a 25 percent spike in cases within the past 50 days.

Newsweek has reached out to the VA for comment.