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Who should be Donald Trump’s voice for veterans? Some vets weigh in

This file photo shows the seal on the front of the Department of Veterans Affairs building in Washington. President-elect Donald Trump has not yet picked a VA secretary, but some veterans groups worry that his push for privatizing services could harm the quality of care.
This file photo shows the seal on the front of the Department of Veterans Affairs building in Washington. President-elect Donald Trump has not yet picked a VA secretary, but some veterans groups worry that his push for privatizing services could harm the quality of care. AP

A politically active liberal veterans organization has slammed three of the names rumored to be on President-elect Donald Trump’s shortlist to head the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Jon Soltz, an Iraq War veteran who’s the chairman of VoteVets.org, said none of the three were qualified because of their records. He said former Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, a retired Army National Guard colonel, had lost his re-election bid, tried unsuccessfully to run from neighboring New Hampshire and wanted to outsource some of the VA’s mental health services.

Brown, after meeting with Trump recently, called himself “the best person” to lead the VA.

Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who defeated Brown in 2012, endorsed his bid for VA secretary.

Solz said that Pete Hegseth, another potential candidate, has also championed outsourcing. Hegseth is a former Army National Guard major and Iraq veteran who until earlier this year led Concerned Veterans of America, a conservative political advocacy group funded by the powerful conservative financiers Charles and David Koch, who run Koch Industries, a multinational corporation based in Wichita, Kansas.

A third potential VA secretary under Trump could be 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, a former governor of Alaska. She has been a lightning rod for political controversy ever since she became a national figure. Her name has also been in the mix for secretary of interior.

“The only person less qualified than Scott Brown and Pete Hegseth is Sarah Palin,” Solz said.

Rick Perry, a former Texas governor and GOP presidential primary candidate, has also been mentioned in the VA secretary mix. So has Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, who is leaving Congress at the end of the year.

The VA is a huge government agency, with a $182 billion annual budget and more than 300,000 employees. It operates 144 hospitals, more than 1,200 outpatient clinics and 300 vet centers.

The health care gets high marks but the agency has been plagued by financial and management scandals in recent years. VA employees falsified records to show that patients were being served in a timely manner, when they weren’t. Cost overruns at the agency’s new Denver hospital rose to more than $1 billion.

Among his pledges about the VA, Trump is pushing privatization – outsourcing some services to non-VA health personnel and facilities. Trump’s campaign website said: “Ensure every veteran has the choice to seek care at the VA or at a private service provider of their own choice.”

But privatization concerns many veterans service organizations, whether they are newer groups with younger membership bases, like VoteVets or Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, or the old guard, like the American Legion.

They fear that for all of the VA’s management troubles in recent years, outsourcing would disrupt its coordinated network of care, which relies on all the various pieces working in tandem to aid veterans. Adding more and more out-of-network providers could complicate the system and weaken it, they fear.

There is also a concern among critics that VA physicians and other medical personnel are highly skilled for the work they do and adding in others who don’t have that kind of patient background could result in lesser care.

In reality, the VA has been outsourcing services for several years. A 2009 Senate hearing noted then that the agency was spending $3 billion in the effort. Additionally, a pilot program called Project ARCH – Access Received Closer to Home – connects veterans with private health care sites nearer to where they live.

Trump’s relationship with veterans and their service organizations has been mixed. He was among several property and business owners along New York’s posh Fifth Avenue shopping district in the early 1990s who objected that street vendor carts, including those operated by disabled veterans, were detracting from the ambiance and wanted them removed. A Civil War-era New York City law provided peddling exceptions for disabled veterans.

Angered at Fox News during the primaries, Trump boycotted a network-sponsored Republican debate and held an Iowa fundraiser for veterans instead. He pledged to raise $6 million and promised to kick in $1 million of his own. Months later he had failed to raise the money or fulfill his own pledge, and he didn’t start writing checks until after a Washington Post story appeared in May that revealed his inaction.

The VA became an agency in crisis as casualties during the Iraq War began to mount far beyond what any of the war planners in the George W. Bush White House and Pentagon ever anticipated. Hospitals filled up, beds became scarce, and doctors and medical staff were overwhelmed. Waiting lists at VA hospitals grew and veterans waited months for help.

The outsourcing debate has its roots in those long wait times, and the fallout that many former troops experienced after so many years of combat. A key marker has been the suicide rate among veterans, which has climbed steadily ever since the beginning of the war. The reasons were many. Among them: the profound and disabling injuries, including mental wounds such as post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury. Multiple tours of duty also took their toll.

A VA report last summer found that from 2001 to 2014, the suicide rate among veterans was more than 20 percent greater than for civilians.

David Goldstein: 202-383-6105, @GoldsteinDavidJ

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