Ex-president’s buddies schemed to exploit VA patients’ data, records show

brucemoskowitz-150x150A trio of former President Trump’s country club friends planned to use the clout he gave them over the Department of Veteran Affairs to set up a potentially enriching scheme to exploit the confidential, personal medical records of millions of U.S. veterans and their families, documents show.

Congressional Democrats, now leading key House committees, have rebuked the three for even suggesting the plan. They were Trump acquaintances from his country club who were given sweeping influence over the VA and were known to lawful government officials as “the Mar-a-Lago crowd.”

The trio — Ike Perlmutter, Bruce Moskowitz (shown above), and Marc Sherman — never served in the U.S. military. They’re not veterans. Perlmutter and Sherman had zero experience in health care. And Moskowitz, while a doctor, is a primary care practitioner — not someone known for his direct experience in running big, complex operations.

ProPublica, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative web site, has detailed how the three badgered VA officials from the top down, claiming their presidential relationship had given them authority over decisions affecting the medical care of more than 9 million veterans and their loved ones at more than 1,000 facilities across the country.

The three have denied any impropriety in their behavior or roles, which infuriated veteran groups, politicians, agency staff, and others. The men insisted they were not acting for their own benefit but instead to assist the president and the country.

Yet congressional investigators, ProPublica reported, have found that Terry Fadem, a consultant who ran a private nonprofit for Moskowitz, penned a disturbing email, writing of the giant government health care agency:

“Patient data is, in my opinion, the most valuable assets [sic] the VA has. It can be leveraged into hundreds of millions in revenue” by selling access to major companies.

The investigative news site also reported this:

“In response to Fadem’s email, Moskowitz told then-VA Secretary David Shulkin that he had discussed the plan with interested companies including Johnson & Johnson, CVS and Apple. Shulkin replied that he liked the idea, according to the documents. Senior officials scrambled to hire Fadem as a contractor, the emails show, but it’s not clear whether his contract was awarded. ‘I am working on trying to understand why and where [h]is contract is stuck,’ Poonam Alaigh, then the agency’s top health official, said in a June 2017 email. ‘I agree, having him on board as soon as possible will be critical.’ The documents do not show what became of the plan or whether the VA ever sold access to patient data. A spokesman for the trio said as far as they know Fadem was not hired and the VA never acted on the licensing idea … Shulkin, Alaigh, Trump’s office, the VA, Johnson & Johnson, CVS, and Apple did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Fadem died in 2019.”

The mere suggestion of this plan set off powerful members of Congress, ProPublica reported:

“House Oversight Committee chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., said in a statement … that the documents show ‘the secret role the trio played in developing VA initiatives and programs, including a “hugely profitable” plan to monetize veterans’ medical records. Ike Perlmutter, Marc Sherman, and Dr. Bruce Moskowitz, bolstered by their connection to President Trump’s private Mar-a-Lago club, violated the law and sought to exert improper influence over government officials to further their own personal interests,’ the chairs said.”

Besides the congressional dig into these curious doings, ProPublica reported that the trio’s actions are under scrutiny by the Government Accountability Office, as well as in a court challenge. The 1972 Federal Advisory Committee Act, passed in response to President Nixon’s Watergate scandals, tightly regulates U.S. agencies relationships with outsiders and outside groups.

The Mar-a-Lago trio, headed by Perlmutter — chairman of Marvel Entertainment and one of Trump’s largest donors — was advised by administration and VA lawyers that they had to comply with the law. They disagreed and, congressional investigators say, appeared to try to hide their activities, including discussing what communications they should keep out of written emails. They have been sued by a liberal veterans group, seeking enforcement of the federal advisory group law.

In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services but also the struggles of those in military service to deal with the giant VA and to receive the promised health care it provides, including for an estimated 100,000 clients in the Washington, D.C., area. A government bureaucracy of its size, no doubt, has more than its share of problems, and we need to root them out and deal with them, including VA’s scandalous leadership challenges. It’s also true that, especially for its size, the agency may not be nearly as troubled as it too often is depicted, according to informed reports.

No matter. This should go without saying. But let’s be 100% clear that the VA should never be the political plaything of plutocratic Palm Beach retirees riding the political sway of the commander-in-chief. That is anti-democratic and outrageous. The agency is charged with keeping one of America’s most sacred bonds — protecting the well-being of service personnel who have shed blood, sweat, and tears on the nation’s behalf. We owe it to the dedicated public servants and their loved ones, those in uniform and not, to keep cronyism’s rot out of U.S. government and we need to get to the bottom of the VA influence scandal. If it weren’t tragically real, it, frankly, would be bad fodder even for a comic book.

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