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The presidential campaign's veterans policy deficit

Editor's note: The following is an opinion piece. The writer is not employed by Military Times and the views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Military Times or its editorial staff.

These days presidential candidates are expected to articulate detailed policy proposals for nearly every major sector of the political sphere before they are deemed qualified for election. That is, except for a national policy on veterans care and benefits. 

The budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs is second only to the Pentagon’s within the annual federal budget, yet VA policy often falls to the wayside for political campaigns. Candidate pages on veterans issues are often lumped together with platitudes about supporting the military, a related but very different topic and policy area, but that’s if candidates mention VA policy at all.  

Policy pages that do exist for veterans issues more often than not amount to a rhetorical pat on the head and assurances that politicians care. But such a pathetic effort to articulate how a candidate would provide for the nation’s protectors and efficiently allocate such enormous sums of taxpayer money constitute political malpractice. 

Vets are used to being taken for granted, but that doesn’t make it right. As service members, their pay is consistently low, they are often used as political pawns, they are sometimes carelessly deployed as political tools, and when they are broken they are written off and transferred to the VA, with much frustration and hassle.

As veterans they then must deal with a hardened medical and benefits bureaucracy that looks out for itself as much as it does its patients and beneficiaries. They are praised twice a year and in between they are too often treated as victims, wrongly evaluated for employment opportunities, and even judged among one another as forever occupying the same social station in life that they were in when they left the military at a much younger age. 

So it is no surprise to the military and veterans community that during every election cycle, candidates for the House, Senate and presidency take them and their votes for granted. But it should come as a surprise for everyone else that such an enormous public responsibility is seen by politicians as a problem that they can smile, wave and throw money at and then call it a day. 

The VA is an enormous operation and decisions about the VA budget and policy not only impacts veterans in the VA’s care, but also the amount of tax that individuals and businesses must pay and the share of the pie that is available for every other federal department, agency and program.   

Each year the VA estimates the amount it will need to treat wounded veterans two fiscal years out, as well as the extra money it will need to supplement care in the coming fiscal year. However, veteran advocacy organizations also develop independent estimates of the resources that the VA will need to meet its obligations, and those estimates consistently suggest that the VA’s administration-approved projections are underestimated. 

The VA, of course, has access to more data to make projections, but advocacy groups factor in data that the VA does not, such as reports from members about actual wait times for appointments that may differ from the VA’s official statistics. Will politicians once in office simply rubber stamp the neatly packaged VA budget and accompanying justifications and give the VA what it asks for every year? Or will they take a closer look at the department’s budget request, question assumptions, seek independent validation, and make an independent judgment about an appropriate VA budget? 

Everyone in VA policy circles knows that the department has political and administrative constraints that prevent it from always requesting accurate levels of funding, especially as part of supplemental budget requests. But there are also major efficiencies to be had within the VA’s budget. Are we to believe that the line item request for medical equipment and supplies is accurate when we know that the VA does not consolidate its medical equipment and supply purchasing in order to take advantage of economies of scale like it does with pharmaceutical purchases? 

What about the VA policy of spending millions of dollars on artwork? Should that be continued? If the department is otherwise fully funded, perhaps that taxpayer money could be better spent by another agency or program, or not spent at all. Or if there is a funding shortage in other areas of the VA's budget, such as in outside care or facility construction, maybe it would be a better investment in those areas. 

The VA also presents a unique opportunity for life-improving and life-saving research for all Americans. As the nation's largest integrated health care system with records and data spanning decades of patients' lives, maybe candidates interested in improving global health and quality of life would rather allocate more resources to VA research programs than to other research institutes funded by federal dollars. 

Another policy choice that must be made relates to cutting VA education benefits because of the need to reallocate money for other new programs that advocates widely agree need to be instituted, such as adding caregiver support for pre-9/11 generation veterans. Which category of benefits is it more or less fair to cut, and by how much? The budget constraints that are forcing this choice are arbitrary, and this is an issue that sharply divides the VA policy community.

And then there's the huge issue of personnel accountability within the VA's massive bureaucracy. Should those convicted of fraud or armed robbery continue to be employed by the VA? What about a VA employee who takes a patient to buy drugs or kills a patient while on duty? 

Should VA bureaucrats who create secret appointment wait lists to hide their failure to meet wait time standards -- and cause the unnecessary deaths of sick veterans in the process -- be given one or two years of paid leave and a performance bonus? 

These may seem like surreal hypotheticals, but they are real cases caused by national policy decisions regarding the VA. Where do candidates stand on these questions and hundreds more? And more importantly, do they understand or even know about these issues?

Based on the flimsy campaign copy and overtures in speeches we see from all presidential and most congressional candidates so far, the answer to the last two questions is a resounding no. 

Alexander Nicholson is a political and legislative strategist based in Washington, D.C. He was previously legislative director at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and has worked on national veterans and defense policy issues for more than 10 years. 

 

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