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John McCain slams key veterans' advocacy groups

The Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Disabled American Veterans are in the way of John McCain's agenda -- and so he's not holding back.
Senator John McCain speaks to reporters about the release of a report on CIA interrogations of high-value terrorists a decade ago in Washington, DC on Dec. 9, 2014. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty)
Senator John McCain speaks to reporters about the release of a report on CIA interrogations of high-value terrorists a decade ago in Washington, DC on Dec. 9, 2014.
Most of the time, major political figures try to stay on the good side of the nation's leading veterans' organizations, but Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is comfortable going in a different direction.
The Republican senator appeared on his daughter's radio show late last week -- just a few days before Memorial Day -- and Meghan McCain asked about the need for improvements in the VA system. The GOP lawmaker, facing a tough re-election fight this year, didn't hold back.

JOHN MCCAIN: I blame some of the old veterans' service organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Disabled American Veterans and American Legion. They are against the Choice Card. Why would they be against the Choice Card MEGHAN MCCAIN: Why are they against it? JOHN MCCAIN: They have been co-opted by that system. They have this symbiotic relationship with the VA bureaucracy. For them to say they are against a veteran having a choice to me is unconscionable.

After expressing his deep "disappointment" with some of the nation's largest advocacy groups working on behalf of veterans, the Republican senator added that veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan "are best represented by the Concern Veterans of America."
The CVA, for those unfamiliar with the group, is a far-right organization funded in part by the Koch brothers' operation, and has been an enthusiastic proponent of privatizing veterans' care.
So what's behind John McCain's broadside? reported last week on the senator's efforts to expand the so-called Veterans Choice Program, which the nation's largest veterans' service organizations are skeptical of for an obvious reason: the goal is to "steer vets to private health care providers."

While advocates see expanding the program as a way to provide veterans with more options, the groups -- including The American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Disabled American Veterans and Paralyzed Veterans of America -- say it would lead to a fraying and shrinking of an integrated managed care system they say serves veterans best. "The American Legion appreciates Senator McCain's efforts to improve the provision of health care for America's veterans. However, one of the central, core elements of the bill expands care in the community in a way that is concerning," Lou Celli, veterans affairs and rehabilitation division director for the Legion, said Tuesday during a hearing of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. Celli said the Legion supported the Choice Program when it was proposed and passed but not as a broad replacement for VA health care. "Veterans should be provided with the option of receiving care in the community as a supplement to VA health care and not to supplant VA care," he said.

This, evidently, has sparked the senator's indignation.
Obviously, given McCain's decorated and heroic service, he can go after groups like the VFW, the DAV, and American Legion in ways most politicians cannot -- but that doesn't mean the senator is correct and the veterans' service organizations are wrong. McCain appears to be pursuing an ideological agenda and it's hardly surprising that these veterans' groups are reluctant to get on board.
As for the underlying policy matter, the Washington Monthly reported earlier this year on the results of the "Choice Card" system championed by McCain and other congressional Republicans.

The basic idea of the VA partnering more with private providers was not flawed in principle. Indeed, the agency already had programs through which it contracted private doctors to perform certain kinds of specialty care or care in remote regions where it lacked facilities. The VA also had an extensive history of collaborating with academic medical centers. Done right, closer collaboration between VA and non-VA providers could improve care for everyone in many areas. But the new legislation set in motion a "choice" program in which the government would be paying for bills submitted by private providers for care that was unmanaged, uncoordinated, and, to the extent that it replicated the performance of the private health care system, often unneeded. This is the very opposite of the integration and adherence to evidence-based protocols that has long made VA care a model of safety and effectiveness. Worse, implementation of the Choice Card was a disaster from every point of view. Congress gave the VA only 90 days to stand up the program. Largely because of that insane time line, the VA was able to attract bids from only two companies. Each of these has a sole contract that gives it a monopoly wherever it operates, and each put together networks that were so narrow and poorly administered that that for many months vets who received Choice Cards typically could not find a single doctor who would accept them. Over the course of 2015, many of these problems of implementation were at least partially sorted out, but the basic flaw in the model remains.

This is precisely what John McCain is so desperate to expand -- even if that means condemning some of the country's largest veterans' service organizations in the process.