Jeb Bush’s effort as governor to partially privatize veterans health care services in Florida went so poorly it was ended shortly after Bush left office.
That hasn’t stopped the former Republican governor, now in the early stages of running for president, from arguing veterans should be given the choice to see a public or private doctor, with either visit being paid for by the government.
“All of these government programs should shift to the person who’s receiving the benefit and they should be empowered to have more choices, rather than be told what line you get into,” Bush said recently in New Hampshire.
In 2014, after a CNN investigation uncovered that veterans had died waiting for medical care, Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed into law a bill that gives veterans more access to private care if they suffer long wait times for appointments.
But Bush’s experience outsourcing veterans’ nursing homes in Florida was a case study in privatization’s pitfalls. By the time it was over, Florida officials determined the state could provide higher-quality care at a better price for taxpayers.
Bush spokeswoman Kristy Campbell said the potential Republican presidential candidate “believes our veterans deserve the best care possible.”
“It was what he worked to do as governor of Florida, and what he believes needs to be done nationally, as he has talked about at length recently, and that includes providing veterans higher quality options,” she said in an email to CNN. “This should especially be a priority in the wake of the Obama Administration scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs.”
In 2001, the state opened a veterans’ nursing home in Pembroke Pines, Florida, that contracted out its nursing and food services to a private company. The contract went to PhyAmerica. The company’s chief executive, a major donor to Florida Republicans who gave to Bush’s campaign, lost control of the company in 2003 after it went into bankruptcy, according to news reports.
Two similarly operated facilities were open in Florida by 2004. By then, the Pembroke Pines facility was already having problems.
It was placed on the state’s list of facilities providing substandard care and ranked in the bottom 20 percent of facilities in its county, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel reported then.
In one incident, the nursing home was cited after inspectors pulled the records of 10 patients and found nine were not being properly cared for, leaving them at risk for falls and accidents, according to the paper.
One patient fell repeatedly before nurses found him on the floor with a half-inch deep gash over his eye. An Alzheimer’s patient escaped from a window before being spotted by staff, the paper reported.
A few years later, the Pembroke Pines facility had another serious incident that rose to Bush’s attention.
A veteran with early stage Alzheimer’s disease went missing and Florida Veterans’ Affairs Department head Rocky McPherson emailed Bush, according to copies of the emails obtained by CNN through a public records request.
“Thank you, Rocky. Keep me apprised,” Bush responded to one of McPherson’s updates.
Two days later, McPherson wrote to tell Bush the veteran had been found during a traffic stop.
“Good news,” Bush replied.
Pembroke Pines and the two other privatized facilities continued to contract out their nursing and food services until after Bush left office.
In 2008, his successor, Gov. Charlie Crist, who was then a Republican, ended the practice, cut the $8 million contract and used the money to “in-source” the facilities’ nursing assistants and food service workers.
The Florida Veterans’ Affairs Department explained the decision in a press release saying, “Research indicates that the department can better control costs and provide a higher quality of care and food to residents by having in-house staff perform the services.”
Or, as a department spokeswoman told The Miami Herald at the time, ”It’s more cost effective, it’s better quality of care for our residents, and our employees get better benefits.”