Steve Russell :
Your money and your life: The politics of
VA Medical Care

VA motto at he Department of Veterans Affairs Building in Washington, DC. Image from JeffOnWire / Flickr.

Paleoconservatives have a long-range plan to destroy Medicare and Medicaid without attacking them directly.

By Steve Russell | The Rag Blog | March 31, 2018

Editor’s Note:  The Rag Blog published Steve Russell’s article, “Your Money and Your Life,” on March 31. The article claimed that the Koch brothers funded a fake veterans organization to agitate for privatization of VA medical care. We noted that when Democratic politicians made that claim, The Washington Post slapped them down by “fact checking” the claim as deserving of “three Pinocchios.”

A week later, on April 7, The Washington Post published an article titled. “How a Koch-backed veterans group gained influence in Trump’s Washington.”  The central claim was that the Koch brothers funded a fake veterans organization to agitate for privatization of VA medical care.

Pinocchio was out watering his Astroturf and could not be reached for comment.


In the revolving door that is the Trump administration, you can no longer keep track of the players without a program, and it almost requires a personal interest to motivate inquiry beyond Stormy and Summer and Karen. Karen? I was expecting Autumn or maybe Cyclone.

Since I do intend to bypass President Trump’s treatment of women — excepting the women who serve in the armed forces — I should confess my personal interest in the Department of Veterans Affairs, formerly known as the Veterans Administration and still called the VA. I am a Vietnam era veteran of the Air Force with a service-connected disability rated 60 percent. My son is a veteran of the Marine Corps and the Air Force Reserve and is medically retired from the Army after two combat tours in Iraq. His service-connected disability is 100 percent.

So, I’ve got a dog in the fight about the future of the VA (technically the VHA, Veterans Health Administration, which lives in the Department of Veterans Affairs). Of course, so do over nine million other veterans. The VA is the second largest bureaucracy in the U.S. government, which makes it one of the largest bureaucracies in the world, sucking up $180 billion from your tax dollars in 2017. My family is not the only one with a dog in the fight.

Reagan’s blather was funded by the AMA, which has since switched sides.

VA healthcare is a hostage in one major governmental battle, and all the scandals that erupt here and there in the behemoth system can usually be traced to the fight over what the political right calls “socialized medicine.” Ronald Reagan, before he became POTUS, did propaganda against proposed Medicare legislation, warning of “a foot in the door” towards a socialist order that would leave us looking back with nostalgia on “what it once was like in America, when men were free.” Reagan’s blather was funded by the American Medical Association, which has since switched sides.

There was great hilarity over a sign at an anti-Obamacare rally, “Government Hands Off My Medicare,” but it gives you a feel for how untouchable Medicare has become. When the AMA deserted the ramparts, though, the radical right soldiered on.

A number of absurdly wealthy persons of that description formed the John Birch Society in 1958. Today, the Birchers are often called “paleoconservatives” since they were read out of the Republican Party by William F. Buckley, from his platform for establishment conservatism, National Review. The primary issue leading to the break was the Birchers attacking President Dwight Eisenhower as a Communist or Communist dupe.

Koch spent the rest of his life on a search and destroy mission against Communism.

One of the founders of the John Birch Society was Fred Koch, a chemical engineer who invented a more efficient method for “cracking” crude oil. After Koch secured his fortune by winning all the lawsuits filed against him by incumbent refiners, he spent the rest of his life on a search and destroy mission against Communism. He died in 1967 in a Utah duck blind. Allegedly, his last words were self-congratulatory, about a “magnificent shot.” His death set off several decades of litigation among his children over control of the family fortune.

Koch Industries, the crown jewel, came to be owned by Charles and David Koch, who also picked up the banner of paleoconservatism. Koch money can usually be found supporting the farthest right candidate in Republican primaries and it was Koch financing that seeded some of the many organizations that went under the name “Tea Party.”

Paleoconservatives have a long-range plan to destroy Medicare and Medicaid without attacking them directly. It involves attacking the Democrats for “tax and spend” while influencing the Republicans to “spend and spend.” At the end of the Clinton years and at the end of the Obama years, the U.S. economy was healthy enough to pay down debt. In both cases, Republican administrations cut taxes and added to the debt. When the debt chickens finally come home to roost, the argument will be that the so-called “entitlement programs” — Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security — must be ended in their current form because “we can’t afford them.”

The other major beachhead socialized medicine has in the government is the VA.

The other major beachhead socialized medicine has in the government is the VA, and medical care for veterans is necessary and popular. The political objective of the paleoconservatives is to require veterans to get their medical care in the private marketplace like everybody else, at first with direct government payments to private doctors and eventually with vouchers that can be cut slowly, with what pain results falling on veterans rather than on doctors.

The mainstream veterans organizations — Disabled American Veterans, American Legion, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Veterans of Foreign Wars, AmVets, and many others — all adopt the position taken by most veterans: keep the VA within the government and see that it has enough resources. The major complaint veterans have about VA care is delay in getting access to it.

With veterans putting up a united front of opposition to privatizing the VA, some new organization was necessary. That new voice was Fox News personality Pete Hegseth and his organization was Concerned Veterans for America.

Hegseth is an Iraq veteran and perhaps an organizing genius given how quickly CVA sprang up from nothing to dive into the complicated policy issues raised by the serial scandals in the VA. Policy papers require analysts and it would be suicide to just jump in and yell, “Privatization!”

The CVA was seeded with over $20 million from Freedom Partners.

Right wing think tanks take lots of money from the Koch brothers and like-minded individuals, so getting a PhD to write something is not hard if you have the support of the money guys. In addition to indirect support, the CVA was seeded with over $20 million from Freedom Partners, one of many Koch front groups.

When Democratic officeholders began to point at CVA as a stalking horse for privatization, the Washington Post disagreed on the ground that the privatization proposed was incremental:

Under the CVA’s proposal, it is the veteran’s choice whether to get medical care from VA or a private doctor. There’s no mandate for a certain percentage of VA’s services to be provided in the private market or for certain medical facilities to be shut down. We award Three Pinocchios to this misleading rhetoric.

Apparently, the Post did not inquire about the sudden appearance of a new and well-funded national veterans’ organization. The newly minted voice for veterans played a major role in the Republican primaries. According to Military Times, CVA-sponsored events attracted Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, and Carly Fiorina in addition to The Donald.

Before the general election in 2016, founder Pete Hegseth resigned as head of CVA. He remained the go-to authority on veterans affairs for Fox News and was considered in the right wing punditocracy to be the heir-apparent to head the VA in a Trump Administration.

Hegseth was ambushed by those pesky veterans, to whom Trump had been doing his very best to suck up. It’s a measure of veteran support for Dr. David J. Shulkin that he was the only Trump cabinet nominee confirmed by unanimous vote. Shulkin was very much against privatizing the VA and said so, a position that put him at odds with the POTUS who appointed him, so he was expected to be a short-timer, and Hegseth returned to the on-deck circle.

This week, Shulkin was fired by Twitter.

This week, Shulkin was fired the way all major appointees are fired these days, by Twitter. The reason given was a charge of taking his wife along on an official trip to Europe and failing to pay enough of her costs according to the Inspector General. If true, this charge of wasting taxpayer money put him in the same situation as — literally — a majority of the Trump cabinet. It seems odd that so many of them have gotten caught with their hands in the till, since the Trump cabinet is the wealthiest in U.S. history, but I guess that is filed under lifestyles of the rich and famous.

Shulkin claimed in an interview with NPR that he was not guilty but the White House forbade him from defending himself publicly. More to the point was an op-ed he penned for The New York Times. The title says it all: “Privatizing the V.A. Will Hurt Veterans.”

“I am convinced,” Shulkin wrote, “that privatization is a political issue aimed at rewarding select people and companies with profits, even if it undermines care for veterans.”

Shulkin is gone and he’s not mincing words when he explains why.

Shulkin is gone and he’s not mincing words when he explains why, but Pete Hegseth had barely dug up his resume when an American Public Media report hit showing two divorces by this man who came out publicly for banning some divorces when he ran for senate. Both of the divorces resulted from his infidelity, the latest when he had a child with a Fox TV producer while he was still married.

Touching another Trumpian practice — nepotism — Hegseth hired his brother to work for CVA right out of college at $108,000.

Hegseth demonstrated his management chops in 2012 when he formed a political action committee, MN PAC, to elect conservative candidates. Less than half of the money raised went to candidates, and one third of it paid for two Christmas parties and reimbursements to… get ready for it… Pete Hegseth.

When the APM report sent Hegseth back to the dugout, Trump announced that he would appoint White House physician and Navy Admiral Ronny Jackson. Since his 2013 appointment by President Obama, Jackson has by all accounts done a good job.

Veterans groups — both grassroots and Astroturf — have held fire until they find out more about Dr. Jackson. No matter what the man says when he acquaints himself with the issues and develops opinions, he is as qualified by being a successful physician to run the second largest bureaucracy in the federal government as a New York real estate mogul is to be POTUS.

I can’t imagine the Koch brothers will be upset even after all that money spent grooming Pete Hegseth. Chances are, a doctor with no executive experience will have enough ugly errors on his watch to reinforce the narrative that the government is incapable of delivering medical care.

Whether the VA fails because of insufficient funding or inexperienced leadership, the important thing for the paleoconservatives is that it fails. When the VA fails, socialized medicine will be discredited on a level second only to wiping out Medicare and Medicaid, results which are coming in good time by purposely running up debt to cut taxes for the already wealthy and blaming the programs that provide medical care for everybody else.


[Steve Russell comes to The Rag Blog after writing for The Rag from 1969 to the mid-seventies. He is retired from a first career as a trial court judge in Texas and a second career as a university professor that began at The University of Texas-San Antonio. He is now associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. Russell is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a ninth grade dropout. He is living in Sun City, just north of Austin, and working on a third career as a freelance writer. His current project is a book of autobiographical essays explaining how an Indian ninth grade dropout was able to become a judge and a professor without picking up a high school diploma or a GED. He can be reached at swrussel@indiana.edu. ]

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3 Responses to Steve Russell :
Your money and your life: The politics of
VA Medical Care

  1. In shorter terms, We the Vets have been (almost) sold. For Money. That’s the usual way to buy and sell. So what happens to ALL the confidential information about each Vet? Google is already selling so many data (yes, students, data is the Plural of datum) and making obscene profits. So the KochSuckers and their hired boy Trump are going to have all the data. just as an auxiliary very valuable asset, given for free but you know they’ll charge out the wazzoe.

    Oh, and they’re going to get rid of a lot of those (us) vets who insisted on surviving. Troublemakers they (we) are. Sideways Speaking Yoda-wise I did. They’ll count their money in their survival bunkers and gloat about bringing civilization to Hell.

    In an advanced and enlightened society it would be legal to hunt them.

  2. Steve Russell says:

    You mean it’s not legal to hunt them?

    • sgtsabai says:

      It must be legal, VVAW was hunted, imprisoned and some were shot and then brought to trial for not dying. I said then and haven’t changed my mind, the government wanted us all to die in Vietnam rather than come home.

      Thanks for your article Steve, I’ve been saying since the first “scandal” broke that it would not be used to fix the VA but to destroy it.

      There are Veterans fighting back, but without more support we are losing to big money and traitors, yes that is what they are, traitors.

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