Conservative-leaning vets group, facing Democrat-led House, switches strategy in efforts to reform VA
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 15, 2019
WASHINGTON – A conservative-leaning veterans group that gained influence under President Donald Trump’s administration announced its new strategy Tuesday to protect its reform efforts of the Department of Veterans Affairs now that Democrats control the House.
Concerned Veterans for America, an advocacy group funded by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch, has pushed for an aggressive expansion of veterans’ health care into the private sector, as well as a faster process to fire VA workers. The group made strides on both issues since the beginning of 2017, with Trump touting them as major successes for veterans. Now, they’re concerned the policy initiatives could be undone.
“Over the past two years, we’ve had a lot of success passing reforms, like the VA Accountability Act and the Mission Act, that we’ve long-supported,” said Dan Caldwell, executive director of Concerned Veterans for America. “We’re switching to defense, ensuring those are properly implemented and not rolled back by policy adversaries in Congress. That’s a new posture for us.”
On Tuesday, the group released its legislative priorities for 2019, the first being to steer implementation of the VA Mission Act, a major reform bill that aims to shift billions of dollars for veterans’ health care to private medical facilities.
The legislation upends the Veterans Choice Program, which allows veterans to seek private-sector care when they live more than 40 miles driving distance from a VA facility or are estimated to wait longer than 30 days for a VA appointment. Thinking those rules too rigid, Congress passed the Mission Act to establish new standards for when veterans can go outside the VA for their care.
The new law gave the VA secretary broad authority over the new access standards.
The new system for private-sector care must be in place in June, yet few details have been made public. Veterans groups and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have criticized VA Secretary Robert Wilkie for his lack of transparency as he leads its implementation.
While several large veterans organizations have cited concerns about allowing veterans unfettered access to the private sector, thus eroding VA resources, Concerned Veterans for America has opposite worries.
“Quite simply, we want to see it implemented in a way that puts the veteran first and not the VA bureaucracy,” Caldwell said. “We’ve heard people express concerns about the community care standards being too liberal or too open, and when we hear things like that, it sounds to us they’re more worried about the VA bureaucracy than the veteran.”
In Trump’s administration, Concerned Veterans for America gained a spot at regular meetings with the VA secretary – once open only to the six largest veterans organizations in Washington. The group was involved in the ouster of former VA Secretary David Shulkin, and one of CVA’s former senior advisers, Darin Selnick, is now a senior adviser to Wilkie.
However, the group sees a new adversary: Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., who as chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs will help set priorities for veterans in Congress for the next two years.
“The motivations of CVA are clear. They don’t have credibility with me, and I’m not going to give them credibility with the public,” Takano said in a recent interview. “What I’m going to say to the public is, CVA’s mission is to privatize the VA. They’re driven by ideology, not by asking what’s best for veterans.”
While Concerned Veterans for America hopes to open access to the private sector, Takano wants the VA to maintain the power of determining when veterans can go into their communities for care. Takano has repeatedly discussed the importance of filling tens of thousands of staff vacancies across the VA system, and CVA wants Congress to reconsider whether those jobs are necessary.
One of CVA’s other legislative priorities for the year is to find ways to cut the VA budget, which has more than doubled in the past decade. Takano will seek to build up the agency, he said.
CVA also raised another potential point of contention – efforts to dilute the VA Accountability Act, which in 2017 gave the VA more authority to fire workers and a faster process to do so. Since then, lawmakers and advocates have expressed concerns the law has been used to target low-level workers and whistleblowers.
Last summer, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., introduced legislation to repeal the law. Caldwell is worried it could gain Takano’s attention and support.
“We are very concerned about potential efforts to rollback both the Mission Act and the VA Accountability Act,” Caldwell said. “Based on remarks we’ve heard from Chairman Takano and others, we are prepared to defend both of those.”
Besides its plans for the VA, Concerned Veterans for America released its other priorities Tuesday, with one goal to reach further than ever before into foreign policy. Charles Koch has historically raised doubts about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and CVA plans to become more vocal in support of Trump’s announcement of troop withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan.
With its initiatives on foreign policy and federal spending, Caldwell insisted Concerned Veterans for America wants to step outside of its “partisan paradigm” and partner with other organizations. Whether it will be able to do so is uncertain.
“We’re willing to let bygones be bygones and work with people who have strongly disagreed with us on VA reform and maybe have said very nasty things about us in the past,” Caldwell said. “On issues like federal spending, we are willing to put aside differences on other issues to work together where we have shared goals.”