Officials at Concerned Veterans of America are lashing back at the two Democratic presidential frontrunners a day after both panned the group's proposals in a national debate.
In a statement, group leaders said its members are "a devoted group of patriots" who "deserve better than false and misleading attacks from top presidential candidates."
CVA has advocated restructuring the Veterans Health Administration as an independent entity and giving veterans more access to private care options with federal dollars, both radical shifts from the current system. But they reject the accusation that the plans amount to "privatization" of the department.
"We very clearly state that we oppose completely dismantling and privatizing the VA," the statement said. "While Senator Sanders and Secretary Clinton are engaging in false and petty political attacks, CVA is offering serious, bipartisan, and in-depth policy proposals to reform and fix the VA."
At the fifth Democratic debate in New Hampshire on Thursday night, Clinton referenced the group without naming it, saying its stated goal is "to convince Americans we should no longer have guaranteed health care, specialized care for our veterans."
Sanders did name the group.
"Concerned Veterans of America, funded by the Koch brothers … who want to destroy Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, every governmental program passed since the 1930s," he said. "Yes, there are people out there who want to privatize VA."
CVA officials have repeatedly declined to discuss funding sources and trustee information for the group, but numerous news reports have linked the group to the Koch brothers network of conservative activist organizations.
Both Sanders and Clinton — along with numerous mainstream veterans groups — have promised to fight privatization of VA services.
CVA officials have said privatization and offering more health care choices are distinctly different things.
"Veterans should be able to choose where they get their health care, whether that's from a VA or non-VA provider," officials said. "The last few years of VA scandals have made clear that veterans should not be limited to VA care when that care is inaccessible or being administered by incompetent or unethical employees."
In a statement Friday afternoon, Democratic National Committee officials supported Sanders and Clinton.
"The jig is up," said Eric Walker, spokesman for the DNC. "Vets shouldn't be fooled by a right-wing front group whose main objective is not helping veterans, but electing Republicans like Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and others who support privatizing the VA."
In recent months, CVA officials have held a series of town halls to discuss their reform proposals, which have sometimes doubled as campaign events for Republican presidential hopefuls.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and business leader Carly Fiorina have all discussed their veterans and foreign policy plans at CVA forums in early primary states.
The next Republican presidential debate is scheduled for Saturday night, just three days before the New Hampshire primary.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.