September 9, 2008 – In June – after months of kicking and screaming – President Bush finally signed a war supplemental spending bill that included a doubling of GI Bill college benefits for veterans.
Bush’s Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), however, doesn’t seem too happy about the increased work these new benefits will create and plans to outsource it all. Last month, VA Secretary James Peake wrote to the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) union announcing the plan. From Peake’s letter, obtained by ThinkProgress:
The challenges of creating the procedures and systems to support a new program and ensuring accurate and timely benefit payments under this new program effective August 1, 2009, will tax VA’s resources.” Therefore, the decision has been made to seek private-sector support to implement this new program.
The government wants to automate all GI Bill requests and is looking to hire a private contractor to set up such a system. AFGE is condemning this decision, which would dump the expertise of 850 government employees who are able to process a veteran’s request for GI benefits within 20 days.
The VA is arguing that with this new outsourcing plan, benefits could be processed in minutes. Veterans advocates point to the Bush administration’s abysmal record in hiring contractors who have no expertise in the area they’re hired to work:
Marty Conatser, American Legion: “Our newest generation of veterans deserve the benefits administered by the Dept. of Veterans Affairs, not outside contractors. Patients, critics and most media all cite the outstanding job the VA is doing. Outsourcing is not the answer.”
Rick Weidman, Vietnam Veterans of America: “If anything goes wrong, I’ll tell you what’ll happen, and it’s what always happens in these instances, is they’ll say, ‘Well, it’s not our job, it’s the VA’s.’ And the VA will say, ‘We can’t do anything, it’s contracted out. It’s the contractor’s job.’ And that is baloney. The problem isn’t the troops; the problem is the leadership.”
Rep. Harry Mitchell (D-AZ): “I just cannot believe that we’d ever allow this to happen. The level of service won’t be the same.”
So far, the Bush administration has treated this contracting process like it has so many others – with secrecy. As NPR reported today, the VA has so far “handpicked only a small number of companies to compete for the contract, and so far, officials won’t even reveal the companies’ names.”
Perhaps this move by the Bush administration is intended to take the agency one step closer to McCain’s dream of privatized veterans health care?