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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump ‘Wants to Abolish VA’?

Hillary Clinton claimed that she “read” that Donald Trump “said he wants to … abolish the VA.” That’s the opposite of what Trump has said.

Clinton got her information from a Wall Street Journal article that said Trump’s campaign co-chair and chief policy adviser indicated that “the presumptive GOP presidential nominee would likely push VA health care toward privatization and might move for it to become more of an insurance provider like Medicare rather than an integrated hospital system.”

Does that mean that Trump wants to end the program that provides health care to nearly 9 million U.S. veterans?

The article quoted the same policy adviser as saying that “there are a lot of VA facilities that are being run very well” and that Trump doesn’t “want to take away the veterans hospitals and the things that are working well.”

Plus, in late October, during a campaign rally in Norfolk, Virginia, Trump told a crowd of supporters that he wanted to “transform” and “modernize” the Department of Veterans Affairs to “make it great again.” Contrary to what Clinton claimed, Trump told his audience, “I don’t want to get rid of it.”

Clinton talked about Trump wanting to “abolish the VA” during a May 16 campaign rally in Kentucky. She said she read, but didn’t verify, that that was Trump’s intention.

Clinton, May 16: He has all of this loose cannon kind of talk about foreign policy and national security. He also … I read this. I really shouldn’t say it. I should verify it, but I read it. He has said he wants to, you know, abolish the VA. Now, we can improve the VA and I will be sure to improve the VA. I will have somebody reporting to me every week in the Oval Office about what improvements we’re making in the VA. But abolishing the VA? Privatizing the VA?

Clinton spokesman Josh Schwerin told us that Clinton’s claim was based on a May 12 Wall Street Journal article that said that Trump would “likely push VA health care toward privatization” and “might move” to make the system more like Medicare.

Wall Street Journal, May 12: Donald Trump says the Department of Veterans Affairs’ health-care system is badly broken, and this week his campaign released some guidelines that would steer changes he would implement if he wins the presidency.

While short on details, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee would likely push VA health care toward privatization and might move for it to become more of an insurance provider like Medicare rather than an integrated hospital system, said Sam Clovis, Mr. Trump’s chief policy adviser, in an interview.

“We want quality care top to bottom,” Mr. Clovis said in an interview. “If that means we have some form of privatization or some form of Medicare, we don’t see anything wrong with that.”

Mr. Clovis, who is also Mr. Trump’s national campaign co-chair, said the candidate’s priority would be to give veterans timely health care close to home.

That could mean restructuring the system in a way to more resemble an insurance provider along the lines of the popular Tricare system used by 9.6 million members of the Department of Defense, where civilian facilities routinely augment department-run hospitals.

“We’ll certainly look at that model, we want to make it as comprehensive as possible,” said Mr. Clovis when asked about Tricare. “The VA’s a broken system now. We can’t continue down that road.”

Clinton also wants to improve the VA, but she opposes efforts to privatize its health care system, according to her campaign website.

In August, when then Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson suggested eliminating the VA health system and giving veterans health savings accounts to purchase private insurance, the heads of eight veterans organizations wrote him an open letter telling him that his proposal “would inevitably endanger the health and well-being of millions of wounded, injured and ill veterans, an outcome that we cannot allow to occur.”

It’s not clear exactly what Trump would do to change the VA, but he hasn’t suggested it be completely eliminated.

The Journal reported that Clovis said the Trump campaign would be fine with privatizing the VA health system, which could mean giving veterans vouchers to purchase private health insurance. Another option the paper said Clovis discussed was making the VA health system more like the Medicare program for seniors or the TRICARE program for military service members and personnel.

But the Journal also said that Clovis declined to provide specifics, and the paper quoted the policy adviser saying that Trump doesn’t “want to take away the veterans hospitals and the things that are working well.”

We also read “The Goals Of Donald J. Trump’s Veterans Plan,” which his campaign posted online after the rally in Norfolk last year. It doesn’t say Trump wants to abolish the VA.

“The guiding principle of the Trump plan is ensuring veterans have convenient access to the best quality care,” the plan reads.

“To further this principle, the Trump plan will decrease wait times, improve healthcare outcomes, and facilitate a seamless transition from service into civilian life.”

The plan includes three key initiatives:

1. Ensure our veterans get the care they need wherever and whenever they need it. No more long drives. No more waiting for backlogs. No more excessive red tape. Just the care and support they earned with their service to our country.

2. Support the whole veteran, not just their physical health care, but also by addressing their invisible wounds, investing in our service members’ post-active duty success, transforming the VA to meet the needs of 21st century service members, and better meeting the needs of our female veterans.

3. Make the VA great again by firing the corrupt and incompetent VA executives who let our veterans down, by modernizing the VA, and by empowering the doctors and nurses to ensure our veterans receive the best care available in a timely manner.

One of the biggest changes that plan would make to the current VA health care system is allowing veterans to get care at any non-VA medical center that accepts Medicare.

“Under a Trump Administration, all veterans eligible for VA health care can bring their veteran’s ID card to any doctor or care facility that accepts Medicare to get the care they need immediately,” the plan states.

“The power to choose will stop the wait time backlogs and force the VA to improve and compete if the department wants to keep receiving veterans’ healthcare dollars,” the plan says.

Trump’s published proposal would seemingly go further than the Non-VA Medical Care Program, which allows eligible veterans to access care outside of the Veterans Health Administration under certain circumstances, such as when VA medical centers cannot provide services. The program requires pre-approval for veterans to receive care at a non-VA facility in non-emergency situations.

That proposal would also go further than the Veterans Choice Act, which, in 2014, created a temporary program, separate from the Non-VA Medical Care Program, that allows eligible veterans to receive health care at a non-VA facility if they would have to wait more than 30 days for an appointment at a VA medical center, or if they live more than 40 miles from the nearest VA hospital.

Although a big part of the plan that Trump unveiled last year involves expanding veterans’ access to health care outside of the VA, he has said that he thinks that the health system is still necessary.

“The VA health care system is a total disaster, nothing short of a disaster,” Trump said in his speech in Norfolk. “Some candidates want to get rid of it. But the veterans need the VA to be there for them and their families. I don’t want to get rid of it. I want to supplement it.”

The plan posted on the Trump campaign’s website makes the same point.

So, does Trump want to “abolish the VA,” as Clinton said?

We don’t know for certain how Trump plans to transform the system. At this point, all we have to go on is what Trump has said he would do, and what his policy adviser says he might do. But neither man said that Trump wants to “abolish the VA.”