By Robby Stern
Roger Stark from the conservative/ right wing “think tank”, Washington Policy Center, wrote a piece published in the Seattle Times entitled “VA Wait-lists a Result of Socialized Health Care.” Stark posits that the terrible and inexcusable problems faced by veterans in getting care is “typical of centrally planned, government-run facilities, which lead to excessive wait times and rationing of care.” Stark argues that veterans should be provided vouchers to purchase health care any place they choose in our “excellent private health care system.”
Evidently Mr. Stark’s ideological blinders have impeded his reading of the World Health Organization’s ranking of health care systems around the world. The predominantly private U.S. health care system fares miserably on most of the indices, including the all-important life expectancy index. Our “excellent private health care system” outcomes are poor, and our costs are double the next most expensive system in the world.
What is maddening about the genuine crisis with the VA is that these problems result from a failure by Congress and the VA to plan for and fund services that veterans groups had warned would be needed for 15 years. The wars have produced veterans with grievous injuries, both physical and mental. The shortages of primary care medical providers and specialists were totally predictable. By failing to adequately fund the VA so the system could appropriately staff up, private sector hawks are now able to undermine confidence in a government program that is essential to our veterans and their families.
With the wars authorized by Congress, it did not take a rocket scientist to predict that the VA would need a very significant injection of new dollars to add new professional staff to respond to the needs of returning vets. Obtuse bureaucrats, stupid bureaucratic decisions and subterfuge in the V.A. added to the resource crisis, but responsibility for the VA crisis rests squarely on the shoulders of the elected representatives who failed to respond to what was totally predictable.
Mr. Stark’s opinion piece is just another example of right-wing think tanks creating the intellectual justification for the outcome for which the funders of their work are paying. They want privatization of the VA system, as there is money to be made.
We are facing a similar problem with the Social Security Administration. While we are making slow progress in garnering support to increase benefits by “scrapping the cap,” there is another very insidious attack on Social Security that is playing out.
Demand for services is surging with the aging of the baby boomers. Meanwhile the Social Security Administration (SSA) is closing field offices and cutting staff. In Seattle, we are well aware of this effort by the SSA. PSARA joined with other organizations in a fight to stop the closure of the Belltown and International District field offices, only to have them consolidated into the difficult-to-access Jackson Federal Office Building.
Recently, the Senate Special Committee on Aging held a hearing to look at the impact of recent Social Security field office closures and service cuts. Although the SSA is receiving record numbers of claims as the Baby Boomer generation hits retirement age, budget cuts have forced the closing of 64 field offices and 533 mobile offices since 2010. Over the last three years, 11,000 SSA jobs have already been trimmed, and a proposal is circulating within the SSA to accelerate office closures, eliminate many in-person services, and shift beneficiary support to online and telephone based service. A report released by the bipartisan Senate committee criticized Social Security administrators for making decisions about shuttering field offices without adequately evaluating how individual communities might be affected.
The SSA, in testimony before a Senate Special Committee, pointed out that funding for administration has not come close to keeping up with “a staggering 27% increase” in claims. A budget document issued by the SSA states, “We have lost a significant number of front-line employees over the last three years, resulting in longer wait times….” There have been cuts to the agency’s operating budgets in the last several years rather than increases to account for the growing demand. Does this sound familiar?!
The operating budget for SSA does not come from general government revenue. Dollars for administration of Social Security are paid out of the Social Security Trust Fund. But Congress determines how much is to be allocated from the Trust Fund for administration. And administration is being underfunded. Therefore the services of the SSA are deteriorating.
Several months ago, Carolyn Colvin, acting Commissioner, and recently nominated by the President to be the Commisioner of Social Security, met with Diane Narasaki, Executive Director of the Asian Counseling & Referral Service, and me. We tried to discuss with her the damage that has been done to our communities by the closures of the Bell Town and International District offices. Frankly, trying to discuss the community’s needs with her was like trying to talk with a brick wall. Her mantra was that our budgets are being cut so we are going to make cuts and people will have to learn to apply online or by phones. Her bureaucratic responses were outrageous.
SSA is developing a new plan entitled Vision 2025 that would close the bulk of their field offices. People are expected to apply for Social Security either through an already overextended phone service or online. Often times, filing for Social Security or Social Security Disability can be a very complex process. This effort to restrict access to personalized assistance will create an enormous hardship for a large number of eligible recipients.
Who is to blame? Certainly insensitive bureaucrats who fail to take a stand for the beneficiaries must be held accountable. But ultimately, the blame lies squarely with the Congress and the President who are failing to fund these essential programs and are refusing to raise the revenue necessary (from those who CAN afford to pay) to provide the services to which we are entitled. The answer to these funding problems is clear – Scrap the Cap!
Unless the income cap is eliminated, the outcome is predictable. People will be very angry at the lack of services which are critical and for which we have paid. Right-wing proponents of the free market will wage a campaign arguing that the private sector (i.e., Wall Street) could do the job much better.
We face a very determined, vicious and wealthy opposition to strong, efficient government programs. We need to stay active, speak with a strong voice and take nonviolent direct action when appropriate, whether directed at bureaucrats or our elected officials.