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In the Bronx, AOC Advocates for a ‘VA for All’

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Speaking to nurses, veterans, and other constituents inside the auditorium of Public School 83 in the Bronx on Wednesday, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) recalled an adage that she said applied to the Department of Veterans Affairs: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Since the spring of 2014, after administrators at a Phoenix veterans’ hospital were found to have been tampering with wait-time data, conservative lawmakers and Koch-backed forces have argued that the agency needed “fixing.” They portrayed the VA as consumed by corruption, unable to deliver adequate care, and nearly broken beyond repair.

The Phoenix scandal did reveal serious capacity issues and administrative wrongdoing, but it was not indicative of endemic issues. Numerous nonpartisan studies have ranked VA health care as generally superior to the private sector, and the vast majority of veterans trust the VA to treat their ailments. In January, the Journal of the American Medical Association found VA patients generally face shorter wait times for care than civilians in the private sector.

Unfortunately, few on the left have crafted a coherent argument in defense of the agency, thereby allowing and, in some cases, abetting a slew of privatizing measures. In response to Phoenix, a bipartisan crew in Congress passed a hastily drafted law called the Choice Act, which outsourced millions of veterans appointments to the private sector and, ironically, resulted in longer wait times for veterans.

Despite the high cost and myriad problems with Choice, the law’s privatizing principles were made permanent two weeks before Ocasio-Cortez won her upset primary victory. On June 6, 2018, President Donald Trump signed the VA Mission Act, a law that could outsource millions more appointments to private-sector providers. Mission was supported by virtually every Democrat in Congress. Just two Democratic senators, Oregon’s Jeff Merkley and Hawaii’s Brian Schatz, joined Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in voting no.

On Wednesday, Ocasio-Cortez broke from party orthodoxy. She offered a full-throated defense of the agency and made clear who lawmakers are really serving with the new legislation: “They are trying to fix the VA for pharmaceutical companies, they are trying to fix the VA for insurance corporations and, ultimately, they are trying to fix the VA for a for-profit health-care industry that does not put people or veterans first.”

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