DENVER– Video of Colorado Republican U.S. Senate candidate Ken Buck proposing to partly privatize Veterans Administration medical care has moved the topic to the center of the race between Buck and Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet. So far that hasn’t been a great thing for Buck, partly because Bennet is passionate about veterans’ care and partly because Buck has seemed hesitant even to elaborate on the almost off-the-cuff proposal that started the debate.
On the campaign trail in June, Buck was prompted by a questioner to take up the issue. “Do you favor [providing veterans’ medical care] through the private sector or through our current government structure?”
“Well, I think there should be a partnership,” Buck said. “Now, would a Veterans Administration hospital run by the private sector be better run than by the public sector? In my view, yes.”
In the days since the video of the exchange emerged, Buck has let his spokespeople do the talking on the matter.
“Ken said that private companies do a better job than the government. Most people agree with Ken, that the government doesn’t always provide the best service. Take a look at Walter Reed,” campaign manager John Swartout told the Denver Post.
“You can look online and see several articles about neglect at VA hospitals,” said Buck press secretary Owen Loftus.
Those answers are vague and the first one is uninformed, strengthening suspicions that Buck’s comment was directed more by ideology than experience.
Walter Reed Medical Center, the subject of a 2007 Washington Post expose detailing neglect and mismanagement, is a Department of Defense facility not a VA facility and, more to the point, much of the neglect at Walter Reed has been pinned on the Bush Administration push to privatize the facility. IAP Worldwide Services, a contractor tied to the Bush administration and to Halliburton, landed a $120 million contract in 2006 and took over at Walter Reed, a process that ended in staff reductions and lost services.
The second less-cited part of the quote from Buck might be even more notable in light of Walter Reed.
“[W]ould a Veterans Administration hospital run by the private sector be better run than by the public sector? In my view, yes,” he said, but then added, “Does the funding for something like that have to come from the public sector and not from the injured veteran’s pocket? Yes.”
In the post-Bush era, the prospect of the limited number of Haliburton / IAP contractors of the world finding new avenues to continue charging the government for services raises the specter of abuse further and limits the free-market appeal of a proposal like Buck’s.
Messages left the last two days with the Buck campaign have gone unanswered.
For those familiar with veterans’ medical care, Buck’s apparent off-hand remark is a radical proposal that would bring sweeping change. The process of making such a switch and ensuring continued reliable care would be enormous. Yet as a group of veterans assembled by the Bennet campaign outside the Capitol in Denver made plain Thursday, the shift proposed by Buck is not just about bureaucracy or business. In their minds it was a matter of culture too. The proposal they said would uproot a veteran care culture established over decades.
Artie Guerrero, an advocate for veterans who lost the use of his legs in Vietnam and whose eyes flash as he talks about living through repeated Reagan administration funding cuts to the VA, said Buck’s proposal to turn over veteran medical care to private industry is a recipe for disaster.
“Right now, we know the system. It’s run by veterans,” he told the Colorado Independent. “It’s not perfect. But look at what’s happening all around with private health care–denying services. We go in with PTSD. Can you imagine? Prove you have PTSD, they’d say. We’re not paying for that.”
Guerrero said veterans involved in the planning meetings for the coming VA Medical Center at the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora dismissed a proposal to privatize the facility.
“Oh, nobody even backed that for a minute,” he said. “We didn’t go for that.” Guerrero said he has been active in veterans’ medical care discussions for “a long time” and that he personally knows no vets who back privatization. “No,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t know one.” He suggested that public opinion can keep government-run facilities accountable where it has less effect on corporate facilities.
On a Tuesday press call with state reporters, Bennet detailed his plan to introduce a series of legislative proposals to improve and expand services for veterans.
The proposals include increased education and job training opportunities, including opening up more than a thousand schools in Colorado to the Troops to Teachers program, securing an additional $450 million for the new Fitzsimmons Veterans hospital, requiring routine mental health screenings so soldiers don’t have to ask for them, extending health care benefits to veterans’ dependents, and ensuring full veteran retirement benefits.
Bennet told the Colorado Independent that he was confident he could garner Republican support for these proposals even given the gridlock that has plagued the Senate this year and the widespread reluctance to increase government spending.
“These issues are profound…. It’s the general view among a number of Republicans here that we’re not doing what we have to do for the people who have made such an incredible sacrifice,” he said. “It’s a priority and we can make it happen.
“I’ve seen the craziness here [in Washington] and I won’t give into the divisiveness. We can find a center and go to work to bring these shared aspirations to life.
“I know it might look impossible from the flickering TV screens bringing you news from DC. But I think we can get it done.”
[Image: Artie Guerrero on the Capitol Mall in Denver ]