Astro-turk - iStock
It is unclear what is afoot at CVA, but no report on VA health care would be complete without acknowledging the chance that VA health care as we have known it might cease to exist if the political stars continue to align in the direction that has the GOP in control of most state houses and both houses of Congress.

VA Healthcare Astro-turfed: Debts to Warriors, Part IV

Steve Russell

Part III of this series listed the veterans’ organizations that have each, in their own way, tried to advocate for people who have left military service, whether lifers or one-hitch wonders like me.

RELATED: Rise of the Chicken Hawks: Debts to Warriors III

I recognized that the newest national organization, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, has done heavy lifting for veterans that is remarkable for the new kid on the block. It’s now time to discuss another organization that purports to represent veterans and is of a similar age to IAVA.

Why does IAVA get mentioned in parallel with more traditional veterans’ lobbying groups and Concerned Veterans for America (CVA) gets its own article? One thing about veterans is that we talk to each other, from maintaining the kind of friendships that come from shared adversity to chatting while waiting in line at a VA hospital. IAVA got on my radar screen from word of mouth; CVA did not. My awareness of CVA started with a piece by Tom Philpott in Stars and Stripes, published May 23, 2014.

Around the same time, I had published an article on the unfolding scandals about the length of the lines for VA care in a manner that defended the integrity of former Gen. Eric Shinseki. Philpott, who held similar views, had taken the trouble to read through all the CVA press statements on the matter. I had not done this because CVA did not appear to me to be a major player in the legislative scrum. Philpott shocked me a bit when he came to the conclusion that the CVA was not pressing the interests of veterans but rather the interests of the Republican Party.

RELATED: VA Scandals, IHS Funding, and Shinseki’s Job

Because CVA had not done anything I could see but issue press releases, I had not paid much attention to the fact that CVA had been a one-man show starring Pete Hegseth, just like IAVA had started as a one-man show starring Paul Rieckhoff.

IAVA had also gotten nailed in Stars and Stripes on September 5, 2012 for taking early shots at Shinseki, and Rieckhoff caught flack in the same piece for what many veterans believed was excessive grandstanding.

Neither one-man show offended me because I have internalized the American Indian tradition of leadership. Leaders are made by the choices of the people who allow themselves to be led, not by birth or ukase.

You stand up and say where you want to go and why. Then you step forward. If anybody is behind you, you are a leader. Hegseth and Rieckhoff started with equal claims and the judgments of veterans would, in my eyes, anoint one or the other or both or neither as leaders of veterans. Hegseth’s day job on the air for Fox News gave him an inside track on the necessary skillset, but no special legitimacy.

The two veterans are similar in a lot of ways. Both are extraordinarily articulate and have penned op-eds in a variety of print media and made many TV appearances for their respective organizations.

Rieckhoff, 41, graduated from Amherst College in 1998 and served in the Army from 1998 to 2007, seeing combat in Iraq and discharging as First Lieutenant. He’s the author of Chasing Ghosts (2006) and has produced four documentary films. He is primarily known outside of veterans’ work for advocating entry to the U.S. for Iraqis and Afghans who served as interpreters for Americans and find themselves in peril as a result.

Hegseth, 35, graduated from Princeton University in 2003 and the JFK School of Government at Harvard in 2013. He served in the Army from 2003 to 2014, seeing combat in Iraq and Afghanistan and discharging as Major. He is primarily known outside of veterans’ work for his unsuccessful run for U.S. Senate for Minnesota in 2012, losing in the Republican Primary.

I was interested where each organization got their seed money, so I proceeded to the logical source, Charity Navigator, where I have in the past been warned off of charitable organizations that sounded pretty good.

IAVA gets three stars of four from CN, with a score of 84.48. Until recently, the organization had four stars, but it was gigged for spending a higher percentage of its income than in the past on administrative costs in an attempt to grow faster. That brought the financial score down to 78.06, but the score on accountability and transparency remained at 100.

For comparison, other three-star veteran charities include the Pat Tillman Foundation (89.47) and the Wounded Warrior Project (84.52). The USO gets two stars and a score of 73.73.

Most mainstream veterans organizations do too much politicking for 501c (3) status, making contributions tax deductible. The Disabled American Veterans operates a charitable trust that weighs in with four stars and 92.68. The very best veteran charity appears to be the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, with four stars and 97.71.

The CVA is too political for a 501c (3), and CVA’s public disclosure “lacks the level of data we (Charity Navigator) require to issue a rating.”

The Nation reported recently that the source for CVA seed money was finally revealed in a recording of Hegseth’s remarks to a closed meeting of donors to the causes favored by Charles and David Koch held in 2014. Hegseth is heard on a recording thanking the donors for the creation of the “grassroots” CVA, followed by Kevin Gentry, VP of the Charles Koch Foundation, telling the donors: Concerned Vets is something that came out of this network and you all as investors are the ones that made this happen.

These would be the same “investors” who staked some (but not all) of the alleged grassroots organizations that became the Tea Party, and this is the sort of political practice that birthed the scornful label, “Astro-turfing.”

Candidate Mitt Romney briefly floated a plan to privatize VA health care in 2012 and was hammered by mainstream veterans’ organizations so badly he never spoke of it again.

The Kochs, however, have never let go of the idea that anything that looks like successful “socialized medicine” has to go. They fought Medicare tooth and nail and getting rid of VA health care would be a victory towards dismantling Medicare.

What about the Indian Health Service? It is small potatoes and too obscure to draw fire from Koch-funded organizations. Instead, the IHS is understood to be collateral damage when the entire Bureau of Indian Affairs is abolished, which is expected to happen by 14th Amendment litigation if Congress cannot be persuaded.

The CVA, since Romney backed off the idea of closing down the VA health system, has orchestrated a series of “town hall meetings,” and virtually the entire Republican field has pledged itself to solving the VA’s problems with health care by doing away with it and handing out vouchers instead.

The Military Times reported in November of 2015 on a poll commissioned by the Vet Voice Foundation, using both Democratic and Republican polling organizations. Almost two-thirds of the vets polled opposed privatization. The Times quoted retired Gen. Paul Eaton of Vet Voice:

This poll confirms what nearly every veterans service organization has always said — privatization and voucherization of the VA is a nonstarter for veterans.

The Vet Voice poll is also backed up by the patient satisfaction surveys conducted regularly within the VA. Even putting aside the opinion of veterans, the VA health service is a source of research data on injuries and conditions that are more common in veterans than in the general population.

Still, the political odds favor CVA’s privatization position because of the careful work CVA has done picking off each Republican candidate in turn. The following candidates are pictured on the CVA web page and have—perhaps not coincidentally—endorsed some form of privatization of VA health care, supporting the “nonstarter”: Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, and Rand Paul.

Rand Paul would keep that part of the VA system that specializes in injuries common among veterans.

Donald Trump would not abolish VA health care outright, but instead “require the VA to compete” by allowing veterans to go to any doctor who takes Medicare.

Dismantling the VA health care system was out of the question in 2012, as Mitt Romney discovered when he proposed it. Now, it appears the work of Concerned Veterans for America is about to come to fruition.

This made the timing exceedingly odd when Rachel Maddow reported on January 22 that Paul Hegseth abruptly resigned from the organization with which he was so personally identified. The announcement claimed the parting of ways was by mutual agreement. CVA had nothing more to say. Hegseth cited an un-named “difference of opinion over the future of the organization.”

It is unclear what is afoot at CVA, but no report on VA health care would be complete without acknowledging the chance that VA health care as we have known it might cease to exist if the political stars continue to align in the direction that has the GOP in control of most state houses and both houses of Congress. Should VA health care be privatized, CVA’s role in that outcome is central.

RELATED: Dead Men Collect No Pensions: The Debt to Our Warriors, Part I

RELATED: Excellent Care If You Can Get It: The Debts to Our Warriors, Part II

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