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Clinton gaffe brings VA problems into 2016 race

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton listens to a question during her appearance before the House Select Committee on Benghazi, Oct. 22, 2015 in Washington, D.C.

JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 28, 2015

WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain said Wednesday that Hillary Clinton’s recent comments about the Department of Veterans Affairs should make veterans question whether she can be president.

McCain, R-Ariz., took the offensive, along with Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida, on behalf of the Republican National Committee, which seized on the growing controversy over Clinton’s statement last week claiming the VA’s problems are “not widespread.” She told MSNBC that the GOP is exaggerating VA dysfunction in a plan to cut funding and privatize the agency.

RELATED: More Stars and Stripes coverage of veterans

After months of little VA debate, the dust-up thrust the continuing problems of veteran access to health care and shoddy management of the mammoth agency into the presidential spotlight — pitting two Republican heavy-hitters on veterans issues against Clinton, who in recent polls has emerged as a clear frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.

“I would say a veteran looking at her comments would question her qualifications to become commander-in-chief,” said McCain, a Vietnam veteran who was held as a prisoner of war.

McCain said the VA has 500,000 veterans experiencing extended wait times that can stretch more than 30 days and 800,000 records in its health care enrollment system that are in limbo.

The agency also is still struggling with corruption and waste, Miller said.

Investigators revealed last month that the director of the VA’s Philadelphia regional office and another executive inappropriately collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in relocation expenses, he said. It was part of a wider scheme designed to sidestep a prohibition on executive raises following the nationwide scandal over hiding long patient wait-times at VA hospitals and clinics, according to the agency inspector general.

Congress also recently authorized the VA to spend more on a Denver hospital project that has ballooned from a cost of $328 million to $1.73 billion because of mismanagement.

“The problems in the Department of Veterans Affairs are indeed widespread and anybody who would claim other than that is just not paying attention,” Miller said.

Clinton’s campaign backpedaled Wednesday following criticism from some veterans groups and acknowledged there are systemic problems in the agency, according to CNN. The campaign did not immediately return a request for comment from Stars and Stripes.

On Friday, Clinton had said most veterans are satisfied with the care they get from the VA.

“Now, nobody would believe that from the coverage that you see and the constant berating of the VA that comes from the Republicans … in part in pursuit of this ideological agenda that they have,” she said.

However, Republicans in Congress are also holding up needed resources to fix the agency, Clinton said.

“They try to create a downward spiral. Don’t fund it to the extent that it needs to be funded, because we [Republicans] want it to fail so then we can argue for privatization,” she said.

As president, Clinton said she would appoint a “SWAT team” to solve the continuing dysfunction and order an ongoing review to ensure more uniform care at VA health care facilities.

Veterans who cannot get timely health care at VA facilities should be allowed to seek private care and charge it to the agency, she said.

Last summer, Congress passed the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act. McCain and Miller — along with Clinton’s biggest competitor in the race for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders — were key architects of the $16.3-billion legislation, which kicked off the biggest VA reform effort in generations.

Included in the bill was a yearlong independent review of the VA health care system and $10 billion to provide outside care to vets who could not get timely appointments.

Veterans groups lobbed criticism at Clinton this week for being out of touch with veterans issues.

The conservative group Concerned Veterans for America charged Clinton with downplaying and ignoring the VA’s problems. Paul Rieckhoff, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, called her comments on the VA a “head-scratcher.”

The VA scandal that began last year with an agency cover-up of health care delays “was so widespread it has its own Wikipedia entry,” Rieckhoff tweeted Tuesday.

tritten.travis@stripes.com
Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

 

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