John Boehner
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The hospital industry’s stake in the privatization of the Veterans Health Administration was on display on October 22, when former speaker of the House John Boehner played a major role in the Cleveland Clinic’s Medical Innovation Summit 2018.  Borrowing Silicon Valley’s favorite term, the conference theme was “Disruption: Reimagining Healthcare.” In front of an audience of 800 doctors, health industry entrepreneurs, and manufacturers, he reimagined a healthcare system that is totally dominated by healthcare corporations and devoid of all government programs.

As Cleveland Clinic CEO and President Tom Mihaljevic, who is also a physician, sat by his side, Boehner argued that “Medicare and Medicaid are bankrupting the federal government.” The private sector, he continued, plays a more important role in research than the National Institute of Health. Boehner reserved his most pointed words for the Veterans Health Administration. The VHA, he said, was “hopeless and unnecessary and provides substandard care for our veterans who deserve the best care.”  A total assault on the VHA’s 11,000 physicians—and, by extension, thousands of other healthcare professionals—Boehner added that, “If you’re a real doctor, you’re probably not working at the VA.”

Boehner’s remarks ignited a  protest from veterans, advocates, VA doctors and the union that represents the VA’s workers, the American Federation of Government Employees. “While it’s certainly not surprising to hear Mr. Boehner spread such vile and slanderous statements about our country’s largest and best health care system,” said AFGE’s National President J. David Cox Sr., “it’s quite disheartening to the hundreds of thousands of women and men who have dedicated their lives to caring for our nation’s veterans.”

Thomas B. Horvath, the former VA Chief of Staff at the DeBakey Houston VA Medical Center, has pointed out in a letter to the clinic that the Rand corporation and several peer reviewed studies showed that “the VA is as good or better as any other health care system and even the Cleveland VAMC stacks well with respect to yours. It is uncollegial to provide a platform for Boehner’s ignorant assertions.”

Faced with such a heated response, the Clinic is, not surprisingly, trying to distance itself from Boehner’s remarks. In response to a critical letter, the head of the Cleveland Clinic’s Corporate Communications department, Eileen Shiele said it was “very disappointed with that comment and it does not reflect the position of Cleveland Clinic whatsoever.” In an email to the Washington Monthly, Shiele emphasized that Mihaljevic said he did not agree with Boehner’s statements while they shared the stage.  When asked to provide a transcript of Mihaljevic’s exact comments, she said she would try to locate a transcript. As of this writing, we have not received one.

Boehner’s remarks are, of course, part of a broader assault on the VHA and other government programs—which are designed to sap public trust in government. As the Monthly has reported previously, these broadsides against the VHA aren’t only delivered by the Koch brothers and their ultra-right allies, but by hospitals like the Cleveland Clinic that are playing a major role in promoting VHA privatization.

Between 2014 and 2016, for example, former Cleveland Clinic CEO Delos “Toby” Cosgrove served as a co-chair of the VA Commission on Care, which was established under the VA Choice Act, to deliberate on the VHA’s future. In those discussions, commissioners were informed that, while American hospitals may abhor government-supported healthcare programs, their business model depends on the flow of billions of taxpayer dollars into their coffers.

The commissioners were supposed to engage in group discussions and then come to a consensus about their final report. Cosgrove and the six other commissioners with close ties to the industry violated this agreed-upon protocol and held a series of secret meetings in which they developed a document—the Strawman Proposal—that recommended the VHA privatization.

Given the Cleveland Clinic’s role in the debate about the future of the Veterans Health Administration, it’s hard to believe the “ innovative clinician’s and strategists” who, as the Innovation Summit advertises, carefully “curated” its discussions didn’t know exactly what they would get when they invited John Boehner to be their keynote speaker. It is also not surprising that, as of this writing, the Clinic’s CEO has neither issued a public apology to his VHA colleagues nor to the veterans they serve.

Suzanne Gordon

Suzanne Gordon is the author of The Battle for Veterans' Healthcare: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Policy Making and Patient Care and the forthcoming Wounds of War: Veterans' Healthcare in the Era of Privatization.