Elections

All candidates say they would help veterans. Who actually has a plan?

A supporter holds a sign during a primary night rally for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016, in Manchester, New Hampshire.
A supporter holds a sign during a primary night rally for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016, in Manchester, New Hampshire. AP

Promising to take care of military veterans is an easy win for presidential candidates.

All of them agree on the need to overhaul the scandal-riddled U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and end delays in accessing the health care that veterans were promised. This is especially a key issue in the South Carolina primary, where veterans make up 11 percent of the adult population.

White House hopefuls have stressed the issue in debates and town halls. But a closer look at their public platforms shows a vast discrepancy in the level of detail in their plans, ranging from footnoted documents of seven-step plans to bullet points to a single flashcard.

391,660Veteran population in South Carolina, according to the most recent U.S. census data

Which of the candidates have detailed plans that would address the kinds of problems faced by the Williams Jennings Bryan Dorn Medical Center in Columbia, South Carolina: long wait times for appointments, concerns about benefits and difficulty in promptly reaching VA representatives? The hospital was one of the most dire examples of the systemic issues facing the VA when 2014 investigations exposed that a number of veterans were dying after long waits and delayed care.

Jeb Bush: ‘This is a problem of priorities, not funding’

Former Florida Gov. Bush rolled out his plan to overhaul the VA last August. He focuses on giving veterans the ability to choose among health care providers, enhancing services for female veterans and modernizing the VA clinics.

He briefly mentions his Florida record before launching into an annotated seven-step plan. Bush says he would find the extra funds by cutting excess administrators and eliminating “billions in waste, fraud and abuse.” This would include more competitive bidding for department contracts and firing poorly performing employees.

Ample resources exist within the VA budget to improve the quality and scope of care. In other government agencies, common-sense reforms have saved billions. The VA must get its house in order.

Jeb Bush

Bush also proposes some technological improvements. His plan suggests teaming up with the private sector to create a secure online credential that can prove residents’ status as veterans. In his plan, public-private partnerships would also replace “shoddy software” that makes it difficult for veterans to refill prescriptions online, a feature he points out is available at most pharmacies across the country.

Donald Trump: ‘The Trump plan will make the VA great again’

Trump is the candidate who has drawn the most public attention to veterans issues by skipping the Iowa debate to hold a fundraiser and often making veteran supporters a key focus of his rallies. He released his own plan last October, which like Bush’s centers on allowing veterans to see private doctors. He also proposes modernizing the VA, expanding investment in technology, embedding clinics in rural areas and firing incompetent executives.

While Donald Trump rightly proposes more health care choices for veterans and long-overdue accountability for bad VA employees, his ‘plan’ is painfully thin on specifics about how he would implement those principles.

Pete Hegseth, CEO of Concerned Veterans for America

Trump said his proposed changes would cost less than the current system because he would eliminate inefficiencies. His plan does not include details about how much it would cost or how he would pay for the changes. A campaign representative did not return calls requesting additional comment.

Despite his vocal support for veterans’ advocacy, Trump turned off many in the military community when he denigrated Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain’s military service during the Vietnam War. His rally in Iowa was also criticized by many veterans groups, who said he was using them as a political prop.

Hillary Clinton: ‘Refocus as a veteran-centric provider of service-connected care’

Clinton rolled out her own plan to revamp the VA in November, promising that as president she would push for more coordination among different insurance providers and allow for some private-sector care “when it makes sense to do so.” Her plan includes establishing a new oversight governance board. Clinton goes into detail about her opposition to privatizing the department, which she says would send veterans into a health care market that is poorly suited to their needs. In an extensive section on overhauling the VA, she says she would revamp performance evaluations and bolster whistleblower protections in the department.

A few weeks before she released her plan, Clinton was criticized for suggesting that the scandal about the VA’s long wait times and delayed care had been exaggerated by Republicans for political gain. “It’s not been as widespread as it has been made out to be,” she said during an MSNBC interview.

Marco Rubio: ‘Marco has led bipartisan congressional efforts to reform the VA’

Rubio’s public platform about veterans’ issues on his campaign website focuses on his record in Congress. It highlights his work on legislation with House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller that allowed the VA secretary to fire employees who weren’t doing their jobs.

Similar to Bush’s and Trump’s plans, he proposes allowing veterans to use their health care funds to see approved private-sector providers of their choice. He does not give details.

Some groups have pointed out that the Veterans Choice program, part of the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2014, already allows veterans to access federally paid medical care from non-VA, local doctors.

Bernie Sanders: ‘We have a moral obligation’

Vermont Sen. Sanders’ public platform on veterans’ issues focuses heavily on his record in the Senate. He offers only five brief bullets points as a plan, including fully funding and expanding the VA and offering improved dental and mental care.

21,300Number of ‘likes’ on ‘Veterans for Bernie Sanders’ Facebook group, double that of the Trump equivalent

Sanders has been vocal on veterans’ issues since the beginning of his campaign. He has touted his record as the former chairman of the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, which worked to provide billions in extra funding to boost health care for veterans. On the campaign trail, his wife, Jane, has often told the story of how Sanders decided to run for president when a disabled veteran thanked him for helping him secure benefits.

At the same time, Sanders has been criticized for defending the VA in the midst of the 2014 scandal and initially dismissing its systematic failures. When pressed on the issue in recent interviews, he admitted, “We should have done better.”

Ted Cruz: ‘A Cruz administration will bring more accountability to the VA’

Texas Sen. Cruz does not have a dedicated plan for veterans’ issues on his public platform but includes three brief bullet points in his defense plan. He calls the management of the VA “unacceptable” and, like his Republican rivals, says he would expand veterans’ health care options.

Ben Carson: ‘We don’t need a Department of Veterans Affairs’

Carson was criticized by veterans’ groups and the military community last August when he proposed eliminating the department altogether.

“There is a lot of stuff we’re doing that doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “We don’t need a Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans Affairs should be folded in under the Department of Defense.”

His website contains only a flashcard graphic under the veterans tab, with a short quote promising to restructure the VA and allow veterans their choice of health care provider.

John Kasich: ‘When a veteran comes home, they should get health care anywhere they want to go’

Ohio Gov. Kasich does not address veterans’ issues on his campaign’s public platform, although he has touched on the topic in debates and speeches.

Vera Bergengruen: 202-383-6036, @verambergen

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