Vets' Care: When Outsourcing Is a Scandal
Veterans benefits are "hurtful to national security."
-- David Chu, Pentagon official, 1/25/05
President Bush endlessly tells Americans that supporting the troops in Iraq is paramount, but when the maimed survivors of his ill-conceived war hobble home, the treatment of their physical and mental wounds is nonchalantly outsourced to politically connected corporations who provide inadequate and sometimes outrageously neglectful care.The push to privatize government services began before the Bush administration took office, but has accerated in the last several years because of the president's 2002 Competitive Outsourcing Initiative.
In principle, contracting services to private companies because they can do as good or better a job for less money is a worthy goal, but as the Walter Reed Army Medical Center scandal has shown, it doesn't always work out that way and, in the process, money talks, cronyism prevails, job performance plummets and accountability goes bye-bye.As Rob Byneart explains it at The Raw Story, one of the seeds of the myriad problems at Walter Reed was planted when the Army awarded a five-year, $120 million contract in January 2006 to a company called IAP Worldwide Services for the management of its facilities, including now ntorious Building 18.
IAP, which is run by a former senior Halliburton officuial, was no stranger to the government because of its abysmal performance in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, specifically supplying emergency ice supplies, but that certainly was no bar to getting other lucrative contracts. (IAP currently is the supplier of ice in national emergencies.) Halliburton, of course, is no stranger to government bean counters because of its exorbitant overcharging for troop support in Iraq.
Before IAP took over Walter Reed, 300-plus federal employees provided facilities management services, but that number had dropped to less than 60 before IAP took over as skilled personnel quit or took other government jobs. Yet instead of hiring additional people, IAP replaced the 60 remaining employees with only 50 of its own employees.
While an argument might be made that it didn't take 300-plus federal employees to do the job, it is now beyond obvious that 50 were either far too few or those 50 were rank incompetents.As someone who has watched privatization efforts of certain Veterans Administration services and in state-level drivers license data base management, welfare case work and the fingerprinting of licensed professionals, I can say without fear of contradiction that in none of these cases is the job being done as well or better because the motivation was to downsize and save money, not provide comparable or better services.
A result of the IAP takeover, as the Washington Post reported and the whole world now knows to the deep embarassment of the White House and Pentagon, was a level of squalor and neglect on the hospital grounds beyond the central facility more befitting a third-world leper colony.
So it goes with IAP, which not only didn't do the job as well or better, it heaped indignities on physically and mentally wounded soldiers.
A brief aside to note three things: (1.) Defense Secretary Gates is to be commended for not following the White House playbook of unaccountability in firing the Army secretary and a two-star general for their misfeasance. (2.) Walter Reed is not a VA hospital and its core medical services remain about reproach. Additionally, the experiences that most of the vets I know have had at VA hospitals have been positive. (3.) There are a lot of dedicated people doing great work for our troops and vets, so let's not lump them in with the outsourcing corporations who aren't.
All that said, a huge question looms that no amount of paint will cover up:
There already are some 600,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with hundreds of thousands more to come. The mess at Walter Reed and some Veterans administration hospitals is just the tip of the outsourcing iceberg.
At what point does outsourcing crucial services like veterans care undermine real government by creating a shadow government run by profit-driven companies with political allegiances but little or no accountability?
If that is the Bush administration's master plan, it is succeeding admirably, if perversely, in this instance.