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November President Obama signed into law the “Vow to Hire Heroes Act” designed to increase employment opportunities for America’s veterans. But a key provision in the act creating an expedited process for hiring returning soldiers for federal jobs is being undermined by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) – the very agency responsible for improving veterans’ lives.
The VA hires more veterans than any other federal agency except the Department of Defense. However, according to the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the AFL-CIO union that represents over 205,000 VA employees, the agency continues to violate federal law by contracting out work that has been traditionally performed by veterans. The outsourced jobs include many entry level jobs that disabled veterans rely on to get back on their feet after returning from the battlefield.
The process began during the Bush Administration, when the number of VA hospitals and cemeteries that outsourced work historically performed by veterans skyrocketed. Jobs that embodied the tradition of “veterans helping veterans,” such as cemetery caretakers, laundry and food service workers, housekeepers, groundskeepers, and transportation assistants, disappeared as more and more contractors were handed the work without the required studies to show whether contracting out was cost-effective to taxpayers.
Unfortunately, under the Obama Administration, the illegal outsourcing of entry-level VA jobs has become more prevalent. Recently, the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) entered into a $54 million, three-year contract with ACS Government Systems, a major contractor in the federal sector, for claims processing work currently performed by large numbers of veterans.
ACS will develop disability and pension claims, help VBA convert to a paperless system, and conduct outreach to encourage more veterans to file claims online. To add insult to injury, the VBA employees are being asked to volunteer to train the contractors to do their work.
The excessive use of contract health care services also presents a serious dilemma for veterans receiving VA care and the many veterans who join the VA health care workforce after saving lives on the battlefield.
“Contract physicians and nurses lack the specialized skills and best practices of clinicians who dedicate their lives to serving the veteran population as VA employees,” said AFGE National VA Council President Alma Lee. “It’s the workforce’s commitment to veterans’ care that makes the VA a world-class and very cost effective health care system. Excessive contracting out has put many medical centers in the red, without benefitting the patient. ”
“We all know who is hurt the most by these growing outsourcing practices,” said AFGE National President John Gage, “It’s the veteran on the receiving end of the agency’s services. Contract claims processors working for profit will now handle the most personal information of our veterans.”
Moreover, said AFGE, most of the VA’s contracts violate federal sourcing law that bans federal work from being given away to contractors without a fair competition between public and private employees. The requirement for agencies to conduct a cost-benefit analysis before awarding a contract was set in a 2009 Appropriations law passed by a bipartisan Congress.