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Gaetz Seeks To 'Liberate Veterans' From VA, Increase Access To Private Health Care

Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media

Florida’s First Congressional District has one of the highest concentrations of military veterans in the country. Improving veterans’ health care is a top priority here and it was the focus of a recent town hall in Pensacola.

Rebecca and Rick Winkler traveled from Crestview to attended the town hall featuring Northwest Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach.

“I want to hear where we’re going with actually improving the VA to be honest with you,” said Rick Winkler. “We all know the problems that they’ve had and obviously no problem is gonna be fixed overnight.”

The Winklers’ son Drew was an Air Force veteran who died by suicide in May of 2016 after battling PTSD for five years. He was 26 years old. Founders of Winkler’s Wish Foundation in his honor, they are interested in mental health services for veterans, but say they’re more concerned about equal access to quality medical care in general.

Take the Veterans Choice Program. Despite good intentions, the Winklers view it as a system that both rewards and punishes veterans depending on whether they live more than 40 miles from a VA medical facility.

“That means I’m more entitled to a benefit because I live further away, so I get the benefit of civilian care,” said Rebecca Winkler, suggesting that those who live closer to VA facilities are limited to just what the VA has to offer. “Again, it speaks to inconsistencies. It’s like we’re cherry-picking who gets the benefit of potential better care, and that’s a problem for me.”

“The VA is socialized medicine; it’s a socialized medicine system,” added Rick Winkler. “You walk in, whatever doctor is available, that’s the one you get. You have no choice. But, if you live 50 miles away from a VA center, you get to go out and shop the market for somebody that’s the best fit for you.”

Such complaints about the Veterans Administration are familiar to Congressman Gaetz.

“Nine out of every ten times the phone rings at my office, it’s a veteran that thinks he’s getting screwed by the VA; and, more often than not, the veteran’s right,” proclaimed Gaetz.

Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
Local veterans gathered at the Hilton Garden Inn Airport to hear about the plans of Concerned Veterans For America to expand health care services for veterans.

Due to those calls, congressional staffers spend much of their time working to help frustrated veterans cut through the red tape at the VA over wait times and delayed health care, among other issues.

While happy to help, Gaetz is adamant that ‘something’s gotta give.’

“I do not believe that the VA in its current format, in how they provide health care, is sustainable,” Gaetz said. “I don’t believe that it’s ‘save-able.’ I think we’ve got to liberate veterans from the VA, so that you’re not, so that you’re actually treated like a customer and not just a problem they’ve got to deal with.”

“It’s encouraging to have a representative, who we’ve never really coordinated anything with at all, be on the same page with us,” said Diego Echeverri, Florida State director for Concerned Veterans For America. The veterans’ advocacy group based in Arlington, Virginia, hosted the town hall Jan. 17 at the Hilton Garden Inn Pensacola Airport.

According to Echeverri, CVA agrees with Gaetz’ assessment that giving veterans greater choice and access to private health care providers is the long-term answer.

“We think that veterans should have real access to quality care, wherever they choose,” he said. “For example, as a veteran, I’m able to use my VA home loan with any lender that I want. I can use my GI bill to go to any university and use that VA benefit, but I’m limited in terms of my health care, I’m really limited in terms of my health care. I can’t really choose where I get my health care from. And, that’s the wrong answer.”

Echeverri, who enlisted in the Army shortly after 9/11 and is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, says those who’ve served their country deserve the very best care the government has to offer.

Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
Rep. Matt Gaetz joins Diego Echeverri of Concerned Veterans For America at a town hall to discuss veterans health care.

“When we raised our hands and we enlisted, we were promised certain things, and the federal government, it is their responsibility to take care of those who bore the burden of battle,” he asserted. “And, if they’re gonna continue sending us overseas, multiple deployments over extended periods of time, then this is even more necessary that we have a system that can provide quality health care to our veterans.”

Currently, CVA is working to lobby support for the Veterans Empowerment Act.” Introduced by Rep. Doug Lamborn from Colorado, the bill would restructure the VA and create a veterans’ health insurance program that enables veterans to use their benefits either inside or outside of the VA system.

Congressman Matt Gaetz says he’s on board with it, as long as the resources are there to support it.

“I don’t want to create a new system that gives veterans the government cheese of health care,” said Gaetz. “I want the premium for veterans and that means reimbursement rates, frankly that are above the Medicare and Medicaid levels because those are too low. If you’re at those levels, you see how many doctors are not taking Medicare & Medicaid anymore?  I mean, it’s a real problem, right?”

While the Veterans Empowerment Act is working its way through Congress, Gaetz is preparing to introduce a bill of his own to help veterans. 

The Medical Marijuana Research Act of 2018 will be filed in coming weeks.

The legislation will allow the VA to assist veterans seeking to participate in state-approved cannabis programs, as well as federally approved clinical trials testing the effectiveness of cannabis on PTSD.  Gaetz says such reforms could be “life-saving.”