As four Republican candidates shared their vision for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Missoula on Wednesday night, Sen. Jon Tester took a neutral stance on President Donald Trump’s new appointment to head the agency.
Hours before the GOP candidates opened their forum, Trump fired VA Secretary David Shulkin and nominated Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson to the post. None of the candidates mentioned the transition, though Tester praised Shulkin for his time on the job.
“David Shulkin has served honorably on behalf of veterans as a physician and as Secretary of the VA, including progress in improving the VA’s delivery of health care and benefits to our veterans,” Tester said. “Moving forward, the VA needs a strong leader at the top who will listen to veterans, strengthen the VA, and work with Congress to implement bipartisan reforms.”
Tester, a ranking member of the Senate Veteran Affairs Committee, said he planned to meet with Jackson to see if “he is up to the job.”
Back in Missoula, however, the four congressional hopefuls described the VA as a failure and three of them mentioned “private care” in their response.
Efforts by some conservatives in Washington to privatize the VA has created a rift within the Republican Party, though most veteran service organizations are against the effort.
“We’ve got to replace the bad actors, eliminate the duplication of efforts, and allow veterans to go into the private facilities to receive their procedures,” said Senate candidate Matt Rosendale. “It all boils down to accountability, leadership and administration.”
Candidate Russ Fagg said he agreed that the VA system has failed Montana’s veterans, and he sees a future built on “choice and competition.” He also believes most local hospitals would be happy to partner with the VA to provide care to veterans.
“I think they would because they want that business,” Fagg said. “Choice and competition is the key to this. I like the idea where veterans can go to their local hospital, their local clinic, wherever they might live, and have their needs taken care of.”
Candidate Al Olszewski portrayed himself as a VA hero who worked harder than all the rest while serving as a doctor at a VA clinic in San Antonio. While there, he said, he was told to “slow down,” and if he didn’t, the rest of the staff would work slower.
He believes the VA culture must change.
“What’s going on is that the culture, the bureaucracy – it’s more important for them to take care of themselves than the vets,” he said, also mentioning private care. “If it’s not service related, we need to take and refocus those services and bring it back into the private system where they’ll get their bread and butter care just like us in every system.”
Troy Downing said the VA has been a disaster.
“The veteran experience in this state is embarrassing,” he said. “Government programs are run like government programs. That’s the biggest problem. We need accountability.”
Tester has passed dozens of VA-related bills over the past few years, ranging from a boost in mileage reimbursement for vets who travel to appointments, to a recent measure that prevents a number of veteran benefits from expiring.
He too has said the VA must be held accountable and, in February, said the VA wasn’t doing enough to address the backlog of veterans waiting for appointments. He has said many times that he opposes efforts to privatize the VA system.
“I am not somebody who wants to privatize the VA,” he told Missoula veterans during a listening session last year. “I think the VA backstop has to be there, and every veterans service organization we heard from back in February said the same thing – don’t privatize it.”