WASHINGTON (AP) — Herschel Walker, the football legend and leading Republican Senate candidate in Georgia, often boasts of his work helping service members and veterans battling mental health.
In interviews and campaign appearances, the previous Dallas Cowboy and Heisman Trophy winner takes credit for founding, co-founding and sometimes operating a program called Patriot Support. This system, he says, has taken him to military bases everywhere in the world.
“About fifteen years ago, I began a program called Patriot Support,” Walker said in an interview with conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt last October. “People must know I began a military program, a military program that treats (hundreds) of soldiers a 12 months,” he told Savannah TV station WTGS in February.
But corporate documents, court records and Senate disclosures reviewed by The Associated Press tell a more complicated story. Together they present a portrait of a celeb spokesman who overstated his role in a for-profit program that’s alleged to have preyed upon veterans and repair members while defrauding the federal government.
The revelation marks the newest example of a way more complex reality that lies beneath the fastidiously curated autobiography Walker has pitched to voters.
Walker’s campaign wouldn’t make him available for an interview.
“So let me get this straight — you might be demonizing Herschel for being the face of a corporation for 14 years that has helped tens of hundreds of soldiers affected by mental illness,” Walker spokeswoman Mallory Blount said in an emailed statement that also criticized the media.
Even before entering the race, Walker drew attention for his past mental health struggles, including allegations that he threatened his ex-wife’s life. He’s dramatically inflated his record as a businessman, because the AP previously reported. And his claim that he graduated at the highest of his class from the University of Georgia, where he led the Bulldogs to a 1980 championship, was also unfaithful. He didn’t graduate, because the Atlanta Journal-Structure first reported.
Political candidates often gild their story and, to this point, within the race for the Republican Senate nomination with the backing of former President Donald Trump, Walker’s troubled background, falsehoods and contradictions haven’t carried a price. But when he wins Tuesday’s primary, through which he holds a dominating lead, Democrats are likely to spotlight unflattering parts of his story in what’s shaping up as considered one of the fiercest fall contests, with control of the U.S. Senate within the balance.
“Walker has a troubled record, much of which Republicans have already been sounding the alarm on,” said J.B. Poersch, the president of Senate Majority PAC, a campaign arm for Senate Democrats that pays for tens of millions of dollars in attack ads. “Loads of the discussion on his record will carry over into the overall election because voters should know the reality.”
Well before his candidacy, Walker received plaudits for his work with Patriot Support. His visits to bases were touted in military press releases. And in 2014, as a celeb contestant on a Food Network game show, Walker won a $50,000 prize to donate to his charity of selection, Patriot Support.
But Patriot Support just isn’t a charity. It’s a for-profit program specifically marketed to veterans that is obtainable by Universal Health Services, considered one of the biggest hospital chains within the U.S. Walker wasn’t this system’s founder, either. It was created 11 years before Universal Health Services says it hired Walker as a spokesman, which paid him a salary of $331,000 last 12 months.
And the $50,000 prize he earned from the Food Network didn’t go to Patriot Support, but was as a substitute donated to a Paralympic Veterans program in Patriot Support’s name.
Court documents, meanwhile, offer a way more troubling picture of its take care of veterans and repair members.
A sprawling civil case brought against Universal Health Services by the the Department of Justice and nearly two dozen states alleges that Patriot Support was a part of a broader effort by the corporate to defraud the federal government.
Prosecutors allege Universal Health Services and its affiliates aggressively pushed those with government-sponsored insurance into inpatient mental health care to drive revenue. That’s because, unlike typical private insurers, government plans don’t limit the duration of hospital stays for psychiatric care as long as specific criteria are met, making such patients more profitable, the federal government alleged.
To realize this end, the corporate pushed staff at its mental health facilities to misdiagnose patients and falsify documents in an effort to hospitalize those that didn’t require it, in accordance with court records. In other cases, they did not discharge those that not needed hospitalization, in accordance with the DOJ.
A lengthy 2016 investigation by the web site BuzzFeed included interviews with former patients, including a veteran, who said they went to Universal Health Services looking for a consultation or counseling only to seek out themselves held in inpatient care, sometimes against their will.
Veterans and repair members were a selected focus, in accordance with court documents.
The corporate hired “military liaisons” to go to bases and develop relationships with military medical staff, treatment facility commanders and clinicians, court documents state.
“To maximise the flow of military patients, UHS engaged in an aggressive campaign … to market its ‘Patriot Support program,’” an organization whistleblower who ran the admissions program at a Utah hospital stated in a 2014 court document.
As a celeb spokesman, Walker was a part of the general public relations blitz.
The corporate reached a $122 million settlement in 2020 with the Department of Justice and the coalition of states.
Jane Crawford, a spokeswoman for Universal Health Services, denied the whistleblower’s account of an aggressive marketing campaign to attract service members into the corporate’s Patriot Support program. She also said a few of the alleged conduct occurred before Universal Health Services purchased a bunch of hospitals operated by Ascend Health in 2012. Ascend Health ran an identical veterans’ program called Freedom Care, which Walker was also a spokesman for.
Universal Health Services also denies the federal government’s broader allegations and said it agreed to the settlement to “avoid the continuing costs and uncertainty of continued litigation.”
Though Walker touts his role with Patriot Support on the campaign trail, there’s no suggestion he was directly involved in any wrongdoing on the hospitals. The corporate declined to renew his contract this 12 months and an in depth biography of Walker was faraway from the Patriot Support website.
“Herschel Walker served as national spokesperson for our Anti-Stigma campaign from 2010 to 2021,” Crawford, the corporate spokeswoman, said in a press release. “As a mental health advocate, Mr. Walker shared his personal journey to boost awareness and encourage others to hunt help. He is not any longer contracted with Universal Health Services.”
Despite the regular stream of revelations about Walker, including his role with Patriot Support, some Republican strategists doubt they’ll hurt his probabilities in a general election contest with Sen. Raphael Warnock, who’s Georgia’s first Black senator.
Whit Ayres, a longtime Republican strategist who began his firm in Georgia, said Walker is “like a God” within the state.
“There are still kids who will wear Herschel Walker’s football jerseys some 40 years after he played for the University of Georgia. So negative information will likely be heard with a heavy dose of skepticism,” said Ayres. “That doesn’t mean that some allegations won’t penetrate somewhat, but they won’t do anywhere near as much damage as to a standard candidate.”