On March 28, via Twitter, President Donald Trump publicly dismissed David Shulkin, the embattled veterans-affairs secretary. Almost immediately, Shulkin fired back with an op-ed in The New York Times, charging that conservatives had pushed him out because of his resistance to outsourcing health care at the Department of Veterans Affairs. “They saw me as an obstacle to privatization who had to be removed,” Shulkin wrote. “That is because I am convinced that privatization is a political issue aimed at rewarding select people and companies with profits, even if it undermines care for veterans.” Though Shulkin did not mention specific names, the group of privatization advocates he alluded to includes hospital CEOs, business leaders, and the Koch brothers.
Among the most significant of these players is a hedge-fund titan named Steven A. Cohen. Cohen rose to prominence as the founder of SAC Capital Advisors, amassing a personal fortune estimated at roughly $14 billion. But from 2013 to 2016, eight of SAC’s leaders pleaded guilty or were convicted of organizing what was the largest insider-trading scheme in US history, and the firm received a $1.8 billion fine. In 2016, to settle charges that Cohen “fail[ed] to supervise a former portfolio manager who engaged in insider trading,” the Securities and Exchange Commission banned Cohen from managing other people’s money for two years. (Reportedly, Cohen inspired the character Bobby Axelrod on Showtime’s popular series Billions.)
That same year, with an initial investment of $275 million, Cohen founded the Cohen Veterans Network, a private nonprofit mental-health-care network. Cohen’s son served in the US Marine Corps, and Cohen took a special interest in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental-health challenges for those returning home from war. During his two years in exile from Wall Street, Cohen worked to build CVN into an extensive private mental-care system. There are now 12 CVN clinics across the United States, several in large metropolitan areas, including Los Angeles and Philadelphia, offering short-term therapy for veterans with mental-health conditions like PTSD, anxiety, and depression. The organization estimates that it has treated 5,000 veterans, including those with other-than-honorable discharges, and their family members, free of charge. Cohen has laid out a grand vision for more than a dozen additional facilities across the nation.
While the venture sounds altruistic, some lawmakers and veterans advocates worry that Cohen’s long-term goal is to replace much of the Veterans Health Administration’s exceptional mental-health-care services with what could be a more expensive, untested, and less accountable treatment network. Recently, CVN announced a partnership with the VA to “increase veterans’ access to mental health resources.” The network is also developing plans to accept VA patients, and government dollars, through the agency’s controversial Choice program, which allows veterans to seek care from private doctors and hospitals. While CVN is billed chiefly as a charitable organization, its long-term business plan incorporates various funding streams to cover the majority of its revenue, including money from the VA, Medicare, Medicaid, and TRICARE.