Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton released her plan Tuesday to address “serious, systemic and unacceptable” problems with Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), saying she will fight to prevent the privatization of veterans’ healthcare that her opponents have championed.
Clinton’s proposals were announced the day before Veterans Day and were partly in response to calls by Republican presidential candidates, including frontrunner Ben Carson, for the elimination of the agency, an idea that has been criticized by military groups. The GOP politicians have called for the privatization of veterans’ care after reports in recent years uncovered an agency beleaguered by “systematic” issues including long wait times and inconsistent care.
“These problems are serious, systemic and unacceptable,” Clinton said at a veterans roundtable in Derry, New Hampshire on Tuesday. “They need to be fixed and they need to be fixed right now.”
During the roundtable, she said that while she would not privatize health care, the government should contract with private companies for some health services. Her plan also includes expanded access to mental health services and increased coordination among all of the government agencies that provide aid to veterans.
In addition to directly helping veterans, she said she supports helping families of active service people by expanding access to child care for military families on base. “I want to do more to help those who stay behind, who raise the kids, who support the families, while their loved one is off representing our country,” she said.
Clinton has previously been the subject of backlash for saying in a MSNBC interview that the problems at the VA have “not been as widespread as it has been made out to be.” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) demanded that she apologize for the comments and called her remarks “disgraceful.” In response to the outrage, members of her campaign promised that she would roll out her plan to reform the VA in the coming weeks.
That plan, announced in the New Hampshire town hall, would also allow VA administrators “to suspend or remove underperforming employees” in order to prevent future inefficiencies, according to a fact sheet provided by Clinton’s campaign.
Last year, the office of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) released a report that pulled together government investigations and media reports and detailed how more than 1,000 veterans may have died in the last decade because of malpractice or lack of care from the VA.
But instead of discussing how they would repair the embattled agency, a number of Republican politicians have called for eliminating it altogether. In August, Carson said that the problems with the VA health system are discouraging people from joining the military in the first place. “We don’t need a Department of Veterans Affairs,” he told radio host Dave Ramsey. “Veterans Affairs should be folded in under the Department of Defense. And it should be a smooth transition. We need to be looking at the way we take care of soldiers.”
The comments drew criticism from multiple veterans groups who called the proposal short-sighted and ill-informed, according to the Military Times. “[The VA] provides an irreplaceable service to the nation’s wounded, ill and injured veterans, and my organization will not let any candidate for any office suggest anything otherwise,” Veterans of Foreign Wars National Commander John Biedrzyck said in a statement at the time.
Donald Trump has also called for privatization and has said that under his plan, VA hospitals would have to compete private hospitals and that any veteran could go to a doctor that accepts Medicare and receive care. “I don’t want to get rid of it, I want to supplement it,” he said about the agency.
Earlier this month, Rep. David Jolly (R-FL), the leading Republican candidate running to represent Florida in the U.S. Senate, said that he’s open to “dismantling” the VA and devolving it to the states.
“Government never gets into services and reduces cost and reduces size,” the lawmaker said during a radio interview. “It always increases costs, increases inefficiency.”
With a budget of over $150 billion, the VA plays a crucial role in ensuring veterans’ benefits and health care. A new poll released Tuesday by the Vet Voice Foundation found that almost two-thirds of survey respondents oppose plans to replace VA health care with a voucher system, an idea backed by some Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates.
“Veterans overwhelmingly feel that health care was a promise made for their service and oppose vouchers that may not cover all costs,” group officials said in their report. “Veterans worry that private insurance companies care too much about profit and would make decisions for the care of veterans based on money.”
Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed also said they would be less likely to vote n 2016 for candidates who support “privatizing the VA health care system.”