Politics & Government

Democrats join Koch group to revamp veterans programs

Democrats for years have seen the conservative Koch brothers as political enemies. Former Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid even called them "un-American."

But Wednesday, Senate Democrats teamed up with Republicans to pass major veterans health care legislation championed by the Kochs.

The Koch-funded Concerned Veterans for America celebrated a big victory with the passage of the VA MISSION Act, a sweeping bill that overhauls how the Department of Veterans Affairs gives patients access to private-sector doctors.

It's a big win for the once-obscure advocacy group backed by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch. The group helped write the bill, which sailed through the Senate by a 92-5 vote after also passing the House overwhelmingly. It got broad support from politicians and veterans groups across the political spectrum, and President Donald Trump is expected to sign the bill into law soon.

The $52 billion package aims to make it easier for veterans to qualify for private sector care by requiring VA to publish clear standards. It allows veterans to appeal if VA denies their requests for care outside the agency.

The bill also extends stipends for veterans' caretakers beyond the 9/11 generation of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. Now included would be veterans of other eras, who could get care at home instead of at institutions.

The legislation would initiate a review of VA assets and infrastructure to determine if some facilities should be closed, or staffing plans restructured, based on documented need and usage.

Not everybody supports the bill. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi opposed it, saying the measure was "a missed opportunity" and fiscally irresponsible. She said it fails to provide a long-term solution to prevent future VA budget cuts.

“This bill opens the doors to VA privatization," the California Democrat said in a statement May 16, after the House passed the bill, 347-70.

"By handing the Trump Administration’s ideologues and Koch Brothers the keys to an underfunded VA," Pelosi said, "Republicans are pushing forth their campaign to dismantle veterans’ health care.”

The bill does not address how the VA will fund all of its obligations and programs once the transfer occurs under the current budget agreement. That could result in automatic across-the-board cuts, explained a Pelosi spokesman Henry Connelly in an email on Wednesday.

"The bill gives unprecedented power to the administration to privatize key VA health care services in an already underfunded system at a time when VA is hemorrhaging leadership and key posts," Connelly said.

Darin Selnick, senior adviser for Concerned Veterans for America, disagreed the group wants to privatize VA, or that the bill the group helped write is a step in that direction.

"That is a false fake news narrative meant to scare people," Selnick said. "No one has ever proposed turning everything over to the private sector and winding things down. That’s a union tactic to preserve jobs. "

Concerned Veterans for America wants to modernize the system and make it more efficient, he said.

If VA is doing a good job, Selnick said, then veterans will choose to stay with VA.

"But we don’t think people should be forced to stay in a bad system," he said. "There needs to be incentive to do a good job and if veterans can choose to go somewhere else to get a good job and your monopoly’s ended, then you have incentive to do a good job."

The bill's provisions were key goals for Concerned Veterans for America and demonstrate the group's growing clout within the Trump administration, where Selnick worked as White House veterans affairs adviser and an adviser to the VA Secretary.

Selnick also gave credit to Sen. Jerry Moran. He said the Kansas Republican played a crucial role in getting White House support.

Moran was instrumental in the development of the new access standards, worked closely with the top Democrat on the Senate's Veterans Affairs Committee, Jon Tester of Montana, and agreed to drop his own version of the bill so that the compromise could become law, Selnick said.

The alternative bill offered by Moran and co-sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, faced criticism that it would too quickly send veterans into the private sector for care.

Tester's office did not return request for comment.

Koch Industries, based in Wichita, has been the second biggest source of political contributions to Moran during the senator's career, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign watchdog.

Moran says he supports the VA MISSION Act because his veteran constituents in Kansas need better access to care, not because a Koch-backed group is pushing it.

Moran declined multiple interview requests from The Kansas City Star. In a speech on the Senate floor last week, he said the bill satisfied concerns he had about an earlier version passed by the Veterans Affairs Committee last year. Moran was the sole holdout on that version, arguing it did not go far enough to ease veterans' access to care outside the VA system.

"This is not privatizing the VA," Moran said May 17. "The VA serves a valuable and useful role. Many veterans choose to have care at the Department of Veterans Affairs, at their hospitals, and at their clinics. Again, it is the veteran's choice where he or she wants to go."

Especially in states such as Kansas, where veterans need options beyond the relatively limited number of VA hospitals and clinics, Moran said.

Lindsay Wise: 202-383-6007, @lindsaywise