WASHINGTON — There are an estimated 21.6 million veterans in the United States. Among them, nearly 9 million are enrolled in health care provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs. About 4.3 million veterans get disability compensation from the VA and nearly 900,000 have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
A 2014 law signed by President Barack Obama aimed to alleviate delays many veterans faced in getting treatment at VA hospitals and clinics and end the widespread practice of fake wait lists that covered up long waits for veterans seeking health care. Two years later, many of the problems remain.
WHERE THEY STAND
Hillary Clinton has pledged to ensure veterans have access to timely and high-quality health care and vows to block efforts to privatize the Veterans Health Administration, the VA’s health-care arm. Clinton also wants to bolster veterans’ benefits, including education and housing aid included in the GI bill. She would ensure that military sexual trauma is acknowledged as a disability under VA rules.
Donald Trump says he will expand programs that allow veterans to choose their doctor — regardless of whether they’re affiliated with the VA — and still receive government-paid medical care. Trump says that’s not privatized care but, he told The Associated Press, “a way of not allowing people to die waiting for doctors.”
Trump also pledged to fire or discipline VA employees who fail veterans or breach the public trust. He also would increase mental health professionals and create a “White House hotline” dedicated to veterans. If a valid complaint is not addressed, “I will pick up the phone and fix it myself if I have to,” Trump said.
WHY IT MATTERS
Lifetime health care is part of the bargain for many of those who put their lives on the line in the armed forces, and it’s become clear the government isn’t holding up its end.
Veterans care has gained prominence since a 2014 scandal in which as many as 40 veterans died while waiting for care at a Phoenix VA hospital. Similar problems were soon discovered nationwide. Veterans waited months for care even as VA employees created secret waiting lists and other falsehoods to cover up the delays.
A law approved after the scandal broke created a program that allows veterans to seek private care at government expense, but the program is limited to veterans who have waited 30 days for an appointment or live 40 miles from a VA health center. Trump says he would vastly expand the program, calling problems at the VA under President Barack Obama “widespread and totally inexcusable.”
Clinton says the VA must retain “the ultimate responsibility” for veterans care. She cites the Veterans Health Administration’s leadership in areas such as prosthetics and traumatic brain injury. She promises to create an oversight board to monitor quality of care.
Veterans groups are encouraged by the increased focus on the VA, as evidenced by a recent forum that featured both Clinton and Trump. But they say the VA must do more to improve access to health care, address veterans’ suicide and change VA’s culture to ensure real accountability.
With nearly 370,000 employees and an annual budget of nearly $167 billion, the VA is the largest civilian agency in the government, and second overall to the Defense Department.
Veterans are also a politically consequential group. Nearly 70 percent voted in the 2012 presidential election, a higher rate than the general population.