Herschel Walker’s ties to the veterans’ program are under scrutiny

Herschel Walker, the football legend and leading Republican Senate candidate in Georgia, often boasts about his work helping soldiers and veterans struggling with mental health.

In interviews and campaign appearances, the former Dallas Cowboy and Heisman Trophy winner credits the founding, co-founding, and sometimes operation of a program called Patriot Support. The program, he says, took him to military bases around the world.

“About fifteen years ago I started a program called Patriot Support,” Walker said in an interview with conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt last October. “People need to know that I started a military program, a military program that treats (thousands) of soldiers a year,” he told Savannah WTGS in February.

But corporate documents, court filings, and Senate disclosures reviewed by The Associated Press tell a more complicated story. Together they present the portrait of a prominent spokesperson who has overstated his role in a for-profit program that has allegedly exploited veterans and soldiers while defrauding the government.

The revelation marks the latest example of a far more complex reality lying behind the carefully curated autobiography Walker has presented to voters.

Walker’s campaign would not make him available for an interview.

“Let me get this straight — you’re demonizing Herschel for 14 years as the face of an organization that helped tens of thousands of soldiers with mental illness,” Walker spokeswoman Mallory Blount said in an emailed statement , which also criticized the media .

Even before entering the race, Walker drew attention to his past mental health issues, including allegations that he threatened his ex-wife’s life. He dramatically inflated his record as a businessman, the AP previously reported. And his claim that he graduated top of his class from the University of Georgia, where he led the Bulldogs to a championship in 1980, was also false. He has no degree, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution first reported.

Political candidates often gild their stories, and in the race for the Republican Senate nomination with the backing of former President Donald Trump, Walker’s troubled background, untruths and contradictions have so far taken no price. But if he wins Tuesday’s primary, in which he holds a dominant lead, Democrats will likely highlight unflattering parts of his story in one of the fiercest competitions of the fall, with control of the US Senate at stake.

“Walker has a troubled record that many Republicans have already sounded the alarm about,” said JB Poersch, the president of Senate Majority PAC, a campaign arm for Senate Democrats that pays millions of dollars for attack ads. “A lot of the discussion about his record will carry over into the general election because voters deserve to know the truth.”

Long before his candidacy, Walker received praise for his work with Patriot Support. His visits to bases have been touted in military press releases. And in 2014, as a celebrity contestant on a Food Network game show, Walker won a $50,000 award to donate to his favorite charity, Patriot Support.

But Patriot Support is not a charity. It is a for-profit program marketed specifically to veterans and provided by Universal Health Services, one of the largest hospital chains in the United States. Nor was Walker the founder of the program. It was founded 11 years before Walker was hired as spokesman for Universal Health Services, who paid him a salary of $331,000 last year.

And the $50,000 award he earned from the Food Network did not go to Patriot Support, but was instead donated to a Paralympic Veterans program on Patriot Support’s behalf.

Court documents, meanwhile, offer a far more troubling picture of his care for veterans and military members.

A broad civil lawsuit brought by the Justice Department and nearly two dozen states against Universal Health Services alleges that Patriot Support was part of a broader effort by the company to defraud the government.

Prosecutors allege that Universal Health Services and its affiliates aggressively pushed those with federally sponsored insurance into inpatient mental health care to boost revenue. That’s because, unlike typical private insurers, state plans don’t limit the length of hospital stays for psychiatric care as long as certain criteria are met, making such patients more profitable, the government claimed.

To achieve this goal, the company urged staff at its mental health facilities to misdiagnose patients and forge documents in order to hospitalize those who, according to court records, did not need it. In other cases, they could not discharge those who no longer required hospitalization, according to the DOJ.

A lengthy 2016 investigation by website BuzzFeed included interviews with former patients, including a veteran who said they went to Universal Health Services for counseling or counseling, only to find themselves in inpatient treatment, sometimes against theirs will.

According to court documents, the focus was on veterans and military personnel.

The company hired “military liaisons” to visit bases and establish relationships with military medical personnel, commanders of treatment facilities and clinicians, court documents said.

“To maximize the flow of military patients, UHS launched an aggressive campaign … to market its ‘Patriot Support Program,'” a company whistleblower who ran the admissions program at a Utah hospital said in a 2014 court document.

As a celebrity spokesperson, Walker was part of the PR blitz.

The company reached a $122 million settlement with the Justice Department and the coalition of states in 2020.

Jane Crawford, a spokeswoman for Universal Health Services, denied the whistleblower’s account of an aggressive marketing campaign to lure service members into the company’s Patriot Support program. She also said some of the alleged behaviors took place before Universal Health Services bought a group of hospitals operated by Ascend Health in 2012. Ascend Health ran a similar veterans program called Freedom Care, for which Walker was also a spokesperson.

Universal Health Services also denies the government’s broader allegations, saying it agreed to the settlement to “avoid the ongoing costs and uncertainty of continued litigation.”

Although Walker campaigned for his role with Patriot Support, there is no indication that he was directly involved in any wrongdoing at the hospitals. The company declined to renew his contract that year, and a detailed bio of Walker was removed from the Patriot support site.

“Herschel Walker served as the national spokesperson for our anti-stigma campaign from 2010 to 2021,” Crawford, the company’s spokeswoman, said in a statement. “As a mental health advocate, Mr. Walker shared his personal journey to raise awareness and encourage others to seek help. He is no longer under contract with Universal Health Services.”

Despite the constant revelations about Walker, including his role with Patriot Support, some Republican strategists doubt they will hurt his chances in a general election campaign with Sen. Raphael Warnock, Georgia’s first black senator.

Whit Ayres, a longtime Republican strategist who founded his firm in Georgia, said Walker is “like a god” in the state.

“There are still kids who will wear Herschel Walker’s football shirts some 40 years after he played for the University of Georgia. So negative information is heard with a great deal of skepticism,” Ayres said. “That’s not to say some allegations won’t get through, but they won’t do nearly as much damage as a normal candidate.”

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/herschel-walker-ap-university-of-georgia-republican-georgia-b2084164.html Herschel Walker’s ties to the veterans’ program are under scrutiny

Bobby Allyn

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