WASHINGTON – Herschel Walker, a football legend and leading Republican candidate from the Republicans in Georgia, often brags about her work, helping servicemen and veterans struggling with mental health.
In interviews and speeches before election campaigns, the former winner of the Dallas Cowboy and Heisman Trophy takes credit for founding, co-founding and sometimes running a program called Patriot Support. The program, he said, has led him to military bases around the world.
“About 15 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 TVS WTGS in February.
But corporate documents, court records and Senate disclosures reviewed by The Associated Press tell a more complex story. Together, they present a portrait of a celebrity spokesman who overestimated his role in a commercial program that allegedly hunted down veterans and military personnel by deceiving the government.
The revelation is the latest example of a much more complex reality that lies beneath the carefully selected autobiography that Walker offered voters.
Walker’s company would not allow him to be interviewed.
“So let me understand: you are demonizing Herschel for being the face of an organization for 14 years that has helped tens of thousands of soldiers suffering from mental illness,” Walker spokeswoman Mallory Blunt said in an email. which was also criticized by the media. .
At a campaign stop on Saturday, Walker said the allegations against the program were of “concern,” but added that he was not sure they were true. Then he changed the subject.
“I am winning this election. People know I will win, ”Walker told reporters.
Even before the race, Walker drew attention to his past mental health problems, as well as allegations that he threatened the life of his ex-wife. As previously reported by the AP, he dramatically raised his record as a businessman. And his claim that he graduated from the University of Georgia at the top of his class, where he led the Bulldogs to the 1980 championship, is also untrue. He did not graduate, as first reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Political candidates often reinforce their history, and so far in the struggle for Republican nomination with Republicans backed by former President Donald Trump, Walker’s troubled origins, lies and controversies have been priceless. But if he wins Tuesday’s primaries in which he leads, Democrats are likely to highlight the unflattering parts of his story in what emerges as one of the toughest fall contests, controlled by the U.S. Senate.
“Walker has a troubled track record, much of which Republicans are already sounding the alarm,” J. said. B. Perch, president of the PAC majority in the Senate, is the election branch of the Senate Democrats that pays millions of dollars in advertising about the attacks. “A lot of discussion of his record will be postponed to 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 the bases were advertised in military press releases. And in 2014, as a famous participant in the Food Network game show, Walker won a $ 50,000 prize to donate to his charity Patriot Support.
But Patriot support is not a charity. It is a commercial program specifically designed for veterans offered by Universal Health Services, one of the largest hospital networks in the United States. Walker was also not the founder of the program. It was created 11 years before Universal Health Services said it hired Walker as a spokesman who paid him a salary of $ 331,000 last year.
And the $ 50,000 prize he received from Food Network did not go to support the Patriot, but was donated to the Paralympic Veterans program on behalf of Patriot Support.
Meanwhile, court documents give a much more disturbing picture of the care of veterans and servicemen.
A widespread civil lawsuit filed against Universal Health Services by the Department of Justice and nearly two dozen states claims that support for the Patriot was part of a broader campaign by the government to defraud the government.
Prosecutors say Universal Health Services and its affiliates have aggressively pushed government-funded insurance into inpatient mental health treatment to increase revenue. This is because, unlike typical private insurers, government plans do not limit the length of hospital stay for psychiatric care as long as certain criteria are met, making such patients more profitable, the government argues.
To achieve this, the company has pushed the staff of its mental health facilities to misdiagnose patients and falsify documents to hospitalize those who do not need it, according to court records. In other cases, they were unable to discharge those who no longer needed hospitalization, according to the Ministry of Justice.
An ongoing 2016 investigation conducted by the BuzzFeed website included interviews with former patients, including a veteran who said they sought out Universal Health Services for advice or counseling only to be hospitalized, sometimes against them will.
According to court documents, the focus was on veterans and servicemen.
The company has hired “military liaisons” to visit bases and develop relationships with military medical personnel, medical facility commanders and clinicians, court documents say.
“In order to maximize the flow of military patients, the UHS has conducted an aggressive campaign … to promote its ‘patriot support program,'” a company informant who ran a Utah hospital admission program said in a 2014 court document.
As a celebrity spokesman, Walker participated in a public relations blitz.
In 2020, Universal Health Services reached an agreement with the Ministry of Justice and the Coalition of States of $ 122 million. The company denies the government’s allegations and said it agreed to the agreement to “avoid lengthy costs and the uncertainty of continuing the trial.”
Jane Crawford, the company’s spokeswoman, also denied the information of the informant about the aggressive marketing campaign to attract servicemen to the program to support the company’s patriots. She also said some of the alleged behavior occurred before Universal Health Services acquired a group of hospitals run by Ascend Health in 2012. Ascend Health ran a similar program for veterans called Freedom Care, which was also represented by Walker.
Although Walker advertises his role in supporting the Patriots in the election campaign, there is no suggestion that he was directly involved in any offenses in hospitals. The company refused to renew his contract this year, and Walker’s detailed biography was removed from the Patriot support site.
“Herschel Walker was the national representative of our anti-stigma campaign from 2010 to 2021,” said Crawford, the company’s spokeswoman. seek help. He no longer has a contract with Universal Health Services. ”
Walker admitted Saturday that he did not create Patriot Support. But he told reporters he started the Freedom Care Ascend Health program in 2007.
But government documents show that Freedom Care was developed by the company in 2006, a year before Walker said he created it. Meanwhile, on the website of the company-archive Walker is listed as a spokesman. A U.S. military news release on the program says Walker did not join until 2008, two years after it was developed.
Whit Ayres, a longtime Republican strategist who founded his campaign in Georgia, said Walker was “like God” in the state, and doubted anything would hurt his chances in the general election with Senator Raphael Warnock, the first black senator Georgia.
“There are still children who will wear Herschel Walker’s football jersey 40 years after he played for the University of Georgia. So the negative information will be heard with a great deal of skepticism, ”Aires said. “This does not mean that some accusations will not penetrate, but they will not do as much harm as a normal candidate.”
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