Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton said problems within the Veterans Affairs Department have "not been as widespread as it has been made out to be" and blamed Republicans for politicizing the agency in a TV interview Friday night.
In her first extended comments on veterans since joining the White House race, Clinton told MSNBC host Rachel Maddow that she believes problems within the VA still are being fixed too slowly, and reiterated her plans for a "SWAT team" of experts to find aggressive ways to address those shortcomings.
"Bring in people and just tackle (it) ... have an ongoing review of the care that is being given, do more to make sure that every VA hospital is delivering care to the highest standard of the community," Clinton said. "Because, unfortunately, some are doing a lot better job than others are."
But she also lashed out at Republicans for "ideological assaults on basic fundamental services, whether it's the VA, Medicare, Social Security," blaming them for exaggerating the VA's problems in pursuit of their real goal: privatization and elimination of VA services.
"They try to create a downward spiral," Clinton said. " 'Don't fund it to the extent that it needs to be funded, because we want it to fail, so then we can argue for privatization.' They still want to privatize Medicare. They still want to do away with Social Security. And these are fights we've been having for 70, 80 years now."
In response, officials from the conservative advocacy group Concerned Veterans for America blasted Clinton for minimizing "the deep-rooted problems within VA" and politicizing the issue herself.
"Mrs. Clinton is clearly out of touch with reality when it comes to veterans' needs, and despite her self-professed lack of understanding of VA issues, is more interested in defending the status quo and entrenched special interests than in actually advocating for the reforms veterans want," CVA CEO Pete Hegseth said in a statement.
Clinton's main Democratic primary opponent, independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, also has been criticized by veterans' groups for being too lenient on the VA's shortcomings, especially during his stint as chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.
Meanwhile, Republican candidates have largely panned the VA and the White House's efforts to reform its operations. Ben Carson has suggested abolishing the department, while Jeb Bush has suggested extensive reforms but has stopped short of calling to completely shut it down.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.