Clinton delivers a speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention.

Clinton delivers a speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention. Andrew Harnik/AP

Clinton Promises VA Reform Will Be a Top Priority If She’s Elected

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee’s Monday speech marked a departure from last fall, when she said the department’s problems were not as “widespread” as some claimed.

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton on Monday said that revamping the Veterans Affairs Department will be “one of my highest priorities” if she is elected in November.

Clinton said she was “outraged” by scandals at the VA, during remarks at the annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Charlotte, N.C., but did not specifically mention holding department employees accountable or changing the disciplinary process for federal workers in the speech. She did, however, reiterate her pledge not to privatize the VA.

“I will tell you this: We are not going to privatize the VA," said the former secretary of State. "We are going to reform it, and make it work for every single veteran in America.” The speech came on the opening day of the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

While Clinton did not mention VA employee accountability on Monday, she has touched on the issue before. Her policy proposal to reform the department and improve veterans’ care and services says she would “create a culture of accountability, service and excellence” at the VA. The fact sheet also says Clinton would reform the employee performance evaluation process, and “ensure managers are held accountable for taking action to deal with poorly performing employees.”

Dan Caldwell, vice president for political and legislative action at Concerned Veterans of America, said that the group was “glad to see that Secretary Clinton now acknowledges the serious problems” at the VA “after originally downplaying them last fall.” But he added that CVA was “disappointed” that Clinton “did not outline a vision of reform for the VA which would greatly expand health care choice for veterans and increase accountability for employees guilty of misconduct.” 

During an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow last fall, Clinton acknowledged the scandal engulfing the VA, but said that “it’s not been as widespread as it has been made out to be.” Veterans’ groups and others were not happy with the comment, which sounded out-of-touch and like she was downplaying the mismanagement at the department.

Clinton’s remarks on Monday to the VFW showed that she is “aware of the reforms that are needed” at the VA, said Bill Rausch, executive director of Got Your 6, a veterans group. I think she has come a long way from her initial comments about VA reform to what she said today, which is, significant reform is needed. So, I think that’s a good sign.”

Rausch added that while employee accountability is important to his organization “ultimately, reforming the VA is not going to rely solely on accountability. That is part of it, but there are much bigger challenges,” he said, citing consolidating care in the community as “something that is absolutely required.”

Clinton on Monday outlined many of the same ideas for fixing the VA and helping vets that she has mentioned before, including improving care for female vets, increasing job opportunities for veterans, and expanding mental health care services. Those are all things her Republican challenger Donald Trump has said he wants to do, too. Trump recently rolled out a 10-point plan to reform the VA, saying he would improve vets’ access to health care, and promising greater employee accountability.

Clinton told the audience of veterans that they deserve a commander-in-chief who “honors your service not just with words, but with deeds.” For Rausch, that “really crystallized what we are going to be paying attention to between now and November,” noting that both Republicans and Democrats have said they are committed to helping vets.

“For some of the challenges the Republicans had last week, there was definitely a focus on veterans and military issues,” said Rausch, who is an Army veteran. “Frankly, we didn’t get to go into the weeds much because everyone wanted to talk about Melania’s dress selling out and whether her speech was plagiarized.”