Fight over privatizing veterans care moves from campaign trail to House

Originally Published in Military Times

By Leo Shane III

A key Democrat wants to bring the presidential campaign fight over veterans health care to the House floor, offering a resolution Wednesday that opposes the privatization of Veterans Affairs programs.

The measure, sponsored by House Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Mark Takano, D-Calif., carries with it no force of law and has little chance of advancing in the Republican-controlled chamber.

Takano -- along with Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Reps. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., and Keith Ellison, D-Minn. -- argues the proposal is needed to “echo the voices of millions of veterans who oppose the privatization of the Veterans Health Administration.” It states that lawmakers should stand against any policy that would jeopardize health care offerings for veterans “by moving essential resources to the private sector.”

On the campaign trail, Democrats insist that’s exactly what Republicans have been trying to do for the last few years. Conservatives -- led by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump -- have argued for a significant expansion of the use of private-sector doctors for veterans' medical appointments and treatments, guiding more federal dollars outside VA.

Republicans counter that department health systems are overburdened and unable to meet veterans’ needs, and proposals to expand health care choices for veterans in no way represent privatizing the department.  

The fight has become the primary friction point between Trump’s veterans policies and that of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who has repeatedly accused the GOP of working to undermine and privatize VA. Takano pushed back on criticism that his resolution is little more than political posturing.

"Perhaps there was a time when warning of VHA privatization was hyperbole, but Republicans on the campaign trail and in Congress are proposing an unprecedented expansion in the role of for-profit providers in veterans care,” he said.

“Conservatives are also treating private care as a panacea, ignoring the long wait time, expensive bills, and regular inconvenience that many American consumers endure. Now is the time for Congress to send a clear message to America’s veterans: It was our decision to send you to war, and it’s our responsibility to care for you when you get home."  

In an appearance before the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in July, Trump promised an overhaul of VA operations and more choices for veterans seeking medical appointments, but also pledged that “the veterans health system will remain a public system, because it is a public trust.”

The American Legion and Disabled American Veterans have endorsed the legislation.

In addition to the partisan fighting over the issue -- a number of Democrats have also supported expanding outside care options for veterans -- Takano’s resolution faces a short legislative timeline for consideration.

Congress is scheduled to leave town at the end of the week for an extended pre-election recess, and will return for an already-busy lame-duck session on Nov. 14.