SAN FRANCISCO - If John McCain is
elected the next U.S. president, wounded veterans could be in for a
world of hurt.
On the campaign trail, the Republican's
presumptive nominee has talked of a new mission for the Department of
Veterans Affairs (VA) and argued that veterans with non-combat medical
problems should be given vouchers to receive care at private,
for-profit hospitals -- in other words, an end to the kind of universal
health care the government has guaranteed veterans for generations.
"We need to relieve the burden on the VA from routine health
care," McCain told the National Forum on Disability Issues last month.
"If you have a routine health care need, take it wherever you want,
whatever doctor or health care provider and get the treatment you need,
while we at the VA focus our attention, our care, our love, on these
grievous wounds of war."
The Republican senator argues that giving veterans a VA card
that they can use at private doctors would shorten the long wait times
many veterans face in seeing government doctors, who are nearly
universally viewed as among the best in the world.
A recent study by the RAND Corporation found that "VA patients
were more likely to receive recommended care" and "received
consistently better care across the board, including screening,
diagnosis, treatment and follow up" than that delivered by other U.S.
health care providers.
Virtually all veterans groups oppose McCain's plan. The
Veterans of Foreign Wars' national legislative director has said the VA
card would "undermine the entire system".
According to the Centre for Responsive Politics, Democrat Barack Obama
has received nearly six times as much money from troops deployed
overseas at the time of their contribution than has Republican John
This may seem odd to some since McCain is a former naval officer, prisoner of war, and Vietnam War veteran.
However, Paul Sullivan, a Gulf War veteran and executive
director of the non-partisan Veterans for Common Sense, says that for
McCain, free market ideology is more important than providing care for
"Ideologues like John McCain and George Bush hate the fact
that the VA exists," Sullivan told IPS, noting that the Republican
candidate also wants to partially privatise social security and offer
private school vouchers to students currently enrolled in public
"They hate the fact that there's a functional example out
there of the government providing better care at a lower cost than the
private sector," Sullivan said. "The problem that the VA faces now is
that the Bush administration failed to hire enough doctors and
disability claims adjusters when they chose to go to war with Iraq. If
these doctors had been hired, the VA would be an example of the
government doing good work. Bush and McCain don't want the public to
McCain has also never spelled out what he means by a "combat
injury", leading many veterans worried they could be left out in the
"If I'm driving a Humvee in Iraq and a roadside bomb explodes
and I veer off the road and crush my arm and end up losing it and
needing a prosthetic, is that a combat wound according to Sen. McCain?"
asked retired Air Force Colonel Richard Klass, the president of the
Council for a Livable World's VETPAC, which has endorsed Obama.
Official Pentagon policy calls such an incident a non-combat
injury. Technically speaking, the only soldiers "wounded" in combat are
those hit by direct enemy fire. As of Aug. 5, Department of Defence
statistics showed 32,799 U.S. soldiers had been "wounded" in Iraq and
Afghanistan. Another 10,685 had sustained "non-hostile" injuries which
required a medical evacuation, while 29,881 were classified as "ill"
enough to be airlifted out of the war-zone.
Veterans are also sceptical of McCain's plans because as a
senator, he has repeatedly voted against fully funding veterans' health
care. In 2005 and 2006, McCain voted against expanding mental health
care and readjustment counseling for service members returning from
Iraq and Afghanistan, efforts to expand inpatient and outpatient
treatment for injured veterans, and proposals to lower co-payments and
enrollment fees veterans must pay to obtain prescription drugs.
McCain's vote also helped defeat a proposal by Democratic Sen.
Debbie Stabenow that would have made veterans' health care an
entitlement programme like social security, so that medical care would
not become a political football to be argued over in Congress each
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) gave him a D+
when they scored his voting record (whereas Obama got a B+). He's voted
with the interests of Disabled American Veterans only 20 percent of the
"If McCain would work to properly fund VA care, there would be no issue
about a VA card," said Larry Scott, who edits the website
VAWatchdog.org. "McCain, by wanting to give vets private care, is
walking away from the VA and ignoring the problem. He is admitting that
he will not properly fund the VA to the level where it can care for all
qualified vets. "
Scott is sharply critical of the VA's often cumbersome and
ineffective bureaucracy, but like most veterans' advocates, believes
the VA system needs to be strengthened. He sees McCain's plan as a way
to phase out the government's commitment to those who've served.
"For every vet who would get a VA card, that would be one less
vet using the VA," he wrote in an e-mail to IPS. That "would mean, in a
short period of time, a smaller budget, fewer locations...and the
eventual dismantling of the best health care system in the country."
IPS Correspondent Aaron Glantz is author of the upcoming book
"The War Comes Home: Washington's Battle Against America's Veterans".