HELENA – Around a dozen picketers gathered in Helena on Monday to protest a proposal they say could spell the closure of VA hospitals around the country.

Union representatives with the American Federation of Government Employees joined veterans and current and former VA employees for the three-hour picket at the heavily trafficked intersection of US Highway 12 and Williams Street – a little more than a mile from VA Montana’s headquarters at Fort Harrison.

AFGE district vice president Gerry Swanke, who heads the union branch that represents thousands of VA workers in Montana and eight other western states, said a report from the congressionally created VA Commission on Care offers a blueprint for the rapid privatization of VA health care services and the potentially widespread shutdown of beleaguered agency-run hospitals.

A series of agency-rocking scandals surrounding lethally lengthy wait times, false record-keeping and disease outbreaks has seen a rash of resignations and firings at those hospitals over the past two years.

The 15-member federal commission tasked with drawing up reforms for the embattled agency in March released a 34-page report that endorses taxpayer-funded options that would allow veterans to receive care from VA facilities or private medical providers – a choice commission members say has been mischaracterized as a hospital shutdown scheme.

Swanke said elements of the report closely resemble reform suggestions offered up by “astroturf” advocates with Concerned Veterans for America – an organization that receives funding from billionaire industrialists and conservative megadonors Charles and David Koch.

There’s no doubt the VA is in need of reform, Swanke said, though he fears any push to “liquidate federal assets” would hurt the quality of veteran care offered at hospitals like Fort Harrison’s.

“The politicians are using this crisis to appear as though they’re addressing the veterans’ health care concerns,” he added. “All they’re really doing is moving something from a system of checks and balances and accountability in the government, to a place where there is no accountability in the private sector.”

Monday’s protest, one of dozens planned this week at VA hospitals nationwide, comes roughly a week ahead of a final commission report scheduled for release on June 30.

It comes a little more than a week after VA Montana Health Care System Director John Ginnity announced he would resign from the agency’s top job effective July 1 – a move that will leave “acting” managers in VA Montana’s top three leadership positions.

One former VA Montana worker and picketer, who declined to give his name, agreed with other protesters that the much-publicized turmoil at the top of the agency only speaks to part of its problems.

“The fish doesn’t just rot from the head,” he said. “There’s been over five (agency) heads and no changes. I strongly believe changing more than just the head would do a lot of good.”

Contact James DeHaven at james.dehaven@helenair.com or 406-594-0067. Find him on Twitter: @JamesDeHaven. ​

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