Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush sought to reclaim his mantle as the top policy wonk in the crowded Republican presidential field on Monday when he unveiled his plan to revamp the beleaguered Veterans Affairs Department through technological innovation and privatizing more medical care.
Bush detailed some of his vision in an op-ed in National Review before fleshing it out at campaign stops in South Carolina, a state with a large military presence and veteran population. “The entire system needs to be simplified, reformed and refocused on its most important mission—to ‘care for those who shall have borne the battle,'” Bush wrote.
The problem with Bush’s plan is that none of it is new, which could be symptomatic of his candidacy. He’s 11 points behind Donald Trump who doesn’t have a plan for the VA. But Trump is constantly saying he’ll take Iraqi oil away from ISIS and spend the money on the vets and their families who sacrificed life and limb in the Iraq War.
As strategically foolish as Trump sounds when he says stuff like that, he probably gets points for originality rather than rehashing old ideas. A blog for disabled veterans by Benjamin Krause called Bush’s plan lame and said the ideas “lack substance and creativity needed to fix the enormously dysfunctional agency…. These reforms are little more than a regurgitation of what is already evolving right now that was enacted in a long-term plan from 1993 forward.”
Nevertheless, Bush, the former GOP frontrunner, hopes to be the leader on a policy issue that has been given short shrift on the campaign trail thus far. Bush’s White House hopes could also benefit from talking about a defense issue not related to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was carried out by his brother, President George W. Bush, and which has dogged his candidacy.
Most notably, Bush’s overhaul plan includes expanding options for non-VA healthcare to the roughly nine million patients already in the agency’s medical network.
The current system only allows those who can’t get an appointment within 30 days or living 40 miles or more from a VA health facility to receive outside treatment.
“That number should be broadened and limitations to private access reduced. If a veteran wants to see a neighborhood physician, he or she has earned that choice. The VA must remain the guarantor of that choice and that care,” Bush wrote in a policy paper.
Senate Armed Services Committee chair John McCain (R-AZ), a revered Vietnam War veteran, recently introduced legislation that would scrap the existing criteria and give the private medical option to all veterans. However, some veterans’ service organizations have expressed concern that such a step would cost the department tens of billions of dollars in medical reimbursement costs.
Bush argues the expansion could be covered by “cutting excess administrators (not caregivers)” and eliminating waste in the department, such as by firing underperforming employees.
“In other government agencies, common-sense reforms have saved billions. The VA must get its house in order and send savings into improving veteran choice and veteran care,” he said.
He also called for a massive software upgrade for the VA, saying the department relies “on an antiquated and unreliable scheduling” system that contributed to last year’s scandal over patient wait times and forced VA Secretary Eric Shineski to resign.
“In this day and age, veterans should be able to login, make or cancel an appointment, and check on the status of that appointment with little hassle,” according to Bush.
He also wants to use GI Bill benefits to insure small business loans for veteran entrepreneurs.
Matthew Miller, chief policy officer for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said that while the group does not endorse candidates or their platforms, Bush’s white paper “represents a positive first step toward bringing veterans issues out from the wilderness and making them a vital part of the platforms of candidates running for president.”
“Ignoring the unique needs of our nation's 22 million veterans will be done at any candidate's peril,” Miller added. “It is the hope of IAVA that Governor Bush's actions will be followed and that veteran issues will occupy center stage in upcoming debates and in the words and actions of all presidential hopefuls.”