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Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Hillary Clinton claimed Wednesday that Donald Trump is leading an effort to privatize the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system as the two lobbed attacks during a forum in New York City.

The billionaire GOP nominee denied the charge to an audience of veterans gathered in the USS Intrepid aircraft carrier museum and countered by criticizing Clinton for saying last year that reports of the VA’s nationwide wait-time scandal were overblown.

During the forum, which set the tone for the upcoming presidential debates, the candidates appeared one after the other and touted their differing plans to overhaul the troubled agency – the second largest federal bureaucracy after the Defense Department – and improve care for millions of veterans who depend on its health care system.

“I will not let the VA be privatized and I do think there is an agenda out there supported by my opponent to do just that,” Clinton said. “I think that would be very disastrous for our military veterans.”

The former secretary of state and real estate mogul have come down on separate sides of the ongoing debate over expanding veterans’ access to private doctors and hospitals.

Many leading veteran groups are in favor of wider access to those providers through the VA but are wary of a wholesale expansion to private care.

Clinton has favored strengthening the VA rather than sending more veterans elsewhere. She described an agency that struggles to provide individualized care to veterans who suffer from traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and sexual assault.

Instead, those veterans are “being handed bags of opioids not being given an appropriate treatment.”

The VA and Defense Department are also failing to properly transfer the medical records of troops who separate, leaving veterans feeling frustrated and lost when seeking to enroll for care, Clinton said.

“They feel like they are living in a funhouse. They have to go over the same things over and over,” she said. “We are living in a technological world. You cannot tell me we can’t do better getting that information.”

Trump, who won a coin toss and appeared after Clinton, lashed back at her VA comments. He cited a November interview on MSNBC when she said the VA’s problems were not “widespread” and the GOP was exaggerating its dysfunction in a plan to cut funding and privatize the agency.

“By the way, Hillary Clinton said six months ago the vets are being essentially treated just fine,” Trump said.

He has campaigned on a plan to dramatically expand veteran access to private care but he denied that would mean privatizing the VA’s system of public doctors and hospitals. Recent proposals in Congress to turn the agency into a not-for-profit corporation and give every veteran a card to get private health care have caused blowback from veteran service organizations.

“I never said take the VA, take the veteran’s administration private,” Trump said. “I wouldn’t do that, too much respect for our people. I would never do that.”

His proposal would give veterans who are waiting for care the choice of going to the VA or a private provider. It tracks closely with a proposal by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to expand the current Choice card program to allow all veterans to receive private care wherever Medicaid is accepted.

Trump said veterans are dying while waiting up to a week to receive care, a claim he has repeated often on the campaign trail.

“In many cases, it is a minor procedure or a pill or just a prescription and they end up dying because they can’t get to see the doctor,” he said.

The waits described by Trump are not uncommon in private care and might also understate the actual waits many veterans still face at the VA more than two years after long waits caused a scandal. About 500,000 veterans are regularly waiting more than 30 days for an appointment, according to VA statistics released in recent months. Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

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