I served proudly in the U.S. Navy for over 30 years, rising to the rank of three-star Admiral. As the highest ranking military veteran ever elected to Congress, and the son of a WWII veteran, I have no higher priority than the welfare of those who wore the cloth of our nation — along with their families (for I know well that the toughest job in the military is military spouse). Identifying the needs of veterans and addressing their challenges in a comprehensive and responsible way was among my highest priorities in Congress. As President, I will be the leading champion for veterans and their families.
It is nothing short of a moral outrage that for far too long far too many of our policymakers were willing to spend trillions on open-ended wars but unwilling to fulfill their obligations to our returning veterans, from medical care to job security to housing assistance. When we make a decision to send American troops abroad, we must also calculate the cost of eventually transitioning them to life back home. Failure to do so is a dereliction of duty.
Even today, far too many of our veterans struggle to find meaningful work. While the unemployment rate for veterans is finally low, underemployment remains a serious problem. Many veterans have families to support and so are willing to take the first job offered to them, even if it fails to utilize their full set of talents and abilities or pay them what they deserve. We must therefore renew and expand legislation like the Vow to Hire Heroes Act which provides businesses with tax credits for hiring veterans who have been looking for work for over six months or who are disabled, and increase funding for Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) programs, which include job training, resume development, and job-seeking skills coaching.
We must also make it easier for veterans to start their own businesses. While veterans are nearly twice as likely to own a small business as the general population, and nearly 1 in 10 small businesses are owned by veterans, today’s veterans are far less likely to own their own businesses when compared to older generations of veterans: nearly 50% of World War II veterans became business owners, and 40% of Korean War veterans, but only 4.5% of post-9/11 veterans had started their own businesses as of 2016. We must pass new legislation to provide assistance to veterans with entrepreneurial development, counseling, government procurement, and low-interest loans.
Veterans are 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide than the rest of the population, and at a rate that has only increased since vets started returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 20 veterans die by suicide every day. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injuries, physical disabilities, addiction, depression, sexual violence, and housing insecurity all contribute to this crisis. We owe it to all our wounded warriors to care for them whether their injuries are visible or invisible, physical or mental. We can do better by our veterans.
We must build on the successes of the Veterans Health Administration — the part of the Veterans Administration that directly provides health services to millions of American veterans — and do our utmost to protect it from privatization at the hands of Republicans and wealthy interests like the Koch brothers. While a few shameful scandals have received much attention, overall the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) provides high-quality medical services to veterans across the country at more than 1,250 facilities. Compared to private contractors which offer comparable services to the general public through Medicaid, VHA services are uniformly rated as good or better by independent monitors. Unlike medical care for the rest of the population, care for veterans through the VA is comprehensive and integrated. Most veterans I meet are generally pleased with the care they receive through the VA. Some tell me it’s saved their lives.
Privatization is the biggest threat to veterans health care. As a case in point, consider the failed Veterans Choice program, created by Congress in 2014. Its purpose was to allow veterans who live a great distance from a VA medical facility or who face a wait time of at least 30 days to receive medical care from an authorized non-VA facility. While the program was created with good intentions, it resulted in over $2 billion in cost overruns — including at least $90 million in overbilling by third-party administrators — with over $19 billion dollars ending up in the hands of private interests, and all without improving patient outcomes. Congress voted in 2018 to scrap the program and replace it with something called the Veterans Community Care Program (VCCP), which just went into effect on June 6th, 2019. Yet watchdog groups and veterans rights organizations have sounded the alarm that this new program is not ready to launch and veterans’ healthcare will suffer with its implementation. Even the Republican chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs Johnny Isakson admitted at a hearing in April that when it comes to the VCCP “we’re going to stumble before we walk.”
The solution to the VA’s problems is not to privatize our country’s most effective national healthcare system — which indeed could be a useful model for a nationwide universal healthcare system — but the VA nevertheless does need better funding and oversight. The Veterans Administration, and especially the Veterans Benefits Administration (which administers financial and other assistance to veterans, and serves as a “gatekeeper” to veterans’ healthcare services through the VHA), could stand to be modernized and improved. First and foremost, the Military Health System and the VA need to better integrate their services, so a veteran’s physical examination upon leaving the military will suffice to determine eligibility for VHA healthcare, rather than forcing them to jump through another hoop. The VHA must reduce wait times for health services where necessary by increasing staffing and upgrading facilities. And the VA must better utilize technology to make it more nimble and efficient, such as through home treatment for mental health challenges via digital interface with doctors and psychologists — which will also require funding improved internet access for veterans in underserved communities, especially in rural areas.
As a Congressman, I co-sponsored the Women Veterans Health Care Improvement Act, which would have improved access to healthcare for women veterans by developing a comprehensive plan to better address their needs. The House passed it, but the Senate failed to do so. As President I will strongly urge Congress to pass this legislation, recognizing the unique medical needs of female veterans.
Veterans are 7.6% of the total US population, but 11% of the homeless population. Among homeless veterans, 50% suffer from a serious mental illness, and roughly 70% have substance abuse problems. We cannot forget these heroes any longer.
When I served in Congress, I voted to expand housing assistance for homeless veterans by providing at least 20,000 rental vouchers per year and creating a new supportive housing program which has caused the number of homeless veterans to fall, but we still have a long way to go. We must learn from innovative approaches taken to reduce chronic veteran homelessness like Phoenix’s “housing first” strategy in which homeless veterans are given housing before being required to prove sobriety or pass a drug test. Once housed, veterans are assigned a caseworker and provided health services and job training. After just a three-year effort, Phoenix became the first big city to end chronic veteran homelessness. We owe it to our homeless vets to replicate such programs across the country. The HUD-VASH (Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Administration Supportive Housing) program, created during the Obama administration, is a great start along these lines, but it needs a champion to fight for it. Disgracefully, President Trump’s latest budget zeroed out funding to address veterans’ homelessness.
Better funding, more integrated care, modernizing the VA, and expanding eligibility for services will help get more veterans the support they need. As President, I will demand legislators provide what is necessary to improve the lives of all who have served our country in uniform, especially those who live in struggle. But it is not enough for the federal government to simply spend money: we must spend it on programs that work, with measurable benchmarks for accountability. We owe that to our brave veterans and to all taxpayers.