A veterans affairs agenda for President-elect Trump


By:  Rep. Mark Takano

The areas of policy agreement between President-elect Donald Trump and me likely could be contained to a single post-it note. On taxes, immigration, health care, foreign policy and several other issues, the ideas he articulated throughout his campaign are reliably inconsistent with my own. I suspect many of my Democratic colleagues, and more than a few congressional Republicans, would say the same.

But Donald Trump was right about at least one thing: Too often we fail to provide veterans the care and support they deserve. Congress must work with the president to meet the difficult challenges facing the men and women who served.

Our first priority is holding Donald Trump accountable to his campaign promise that he will not privatize the Department of Veterans Affairs. Nine million veterans rely on the VA Health System every year for high quality care that is specifically designed to treat the unique physical and mental health issues many veterans experience. Studies show VA care is as good or better than the care provided in the private sector.

The overwhelming sentiment from my conversations with veterans is that VA care is excellent, but it takes too long to get an appointment. Some VA facilities are overwhelmed by the demand for veterans care. In response, Congress passed the Choice Act in 2014, which temporarily expands veterans’ access to private care if they live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or cannot get an appointment within 30 days. That program expires next summer, and Congress must develop a new strategy for connecting veterans with the care they need. 

On the campaign trail, Trump pledged to turn VA health care into a voucher that veterans could use at any private-sector facility. It’s a proposal that may sound good at first, but would have severe consequences for millions of veterans. First, the private sector is simply not equipped with the expertise or training to treat combat-related health conditions. Second, it would divert funding away from VA facilities and put the future of the VA health system in serious jeopardy.

The stakes of protecting the VA’s role in veterans’ health care are high. Of the 20 veterans who die from suicide every day, 14 are not enrolled in the VA health system. Our goal should be to create greater capacity and encourage participation in the VA health system by recruiting talented doctors and nurses, and training new ones to meet the incredible demand for care.

And finally, by injecting a profit motive into veterans care, the voucher proposal would increase the cost of veterans’ health care by up to $1 trillion. Such a large increase surely would force veterans to take on a greater share of those costs, while allowing private companies to reap the benefits.

We already know the consequences of allowing companies to profit off of veterans. The for-profit education industry is notorious for its terrible treatment of the brave men and women who serve. 
As the founder of Trump University, our president-elect understands the shortcomings of for-profit education better than anyone. Many of these schools entice prospective students with promises of prosperity and wealth, but deliver insurmountable debt and a useless degree instead. Worst of all, because of a legal loophole, they target student veterans and the generous GI Bill benefits they receive. 
A 2014 Senate study found that 8 of the top 10 institutions receiving the most GI Bill dollars were for-profit schools. At the time, seven of those eight had been the subject of a state or federal investigation into their business practices. Two years later, two of those schools are now defunct – Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute – but not before they took a combined $1 billion in veterans’ education benefits and left thousands of veterans with no degree and few job opportunities. 
A quirk in our law incentivizes for-profit schools to aggressively recruit veterans. Schools are required to prove their value by earning at least 10 percent of their revenue from nonfederal sources. Although taxpayers fund the GI Bill, the law treats GI Bill benefits as “nonfederal funding.” The result is that for every veteran a school can recruit, that school can accept nine more students using federal financial aid, which is critical to turning a profit.  
We must immediately close the 90/10 loophole. Every day we fail to act, veterans are being cheated out of their GI Bill benefits and the successful future they deserve.  
 
America is entering its 16th year fighting the war on terror and that burden has fallen heavily on the one-half of 1 percent of Americans who serve in our all-volunteer force. Our deeply divided politics is no excuse for failing to meet their needs.  We have 22 million veterans and a moral obligation to honor their service and sacrifice. 
President-elect Trump made big promises to veterans during his campaign. Now, it's time to deliver. 
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., is acting ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee and co-chair of the Congressional Work for Warriors Caucus.