Where the Presidential Candidates Stand on Three Veterans Issues

The candidate’s positions on veterans’ issues are notably distinct.

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by Elisha Harig-Blaine

Earlier this week, voters had the opportunity to hear directly from Secretary Clinton and Donald Trump on how they would handle national security and veterans’ issues during NBC’s Commander-in-Chief Forum.

While the bulk of questions and answers focused on foreign policy and national security matters, issues unique to veterans such as the military’s high rate of sexual assaults and suicide, as well as access to health care, were also raised.

Voters may struggle to trust Mrs. Clinton, but there is no doubt where she stands on a litany of issues. Meanwhile, Mr. Trump provides voters with too little information about what he would do for our nation’s veterans and how he would do it.

Based on their remarks last night and the campaign websites, here are the candidates’ positions on three key issues:

1. Access to Health Care

Secretary Clinton: Reform the Veterans Health Administration to improve veteran access and protect it from privatization.

Mr. Trump: Allow veterans to go “to any doctor or care facility that accepts Medicare to get the care they need immediately.” (emphasis added by campaign)

In response to a question about the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) wait times scandal, Secretary Clinton acknowledged the need to reform the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). However she defended its existence, saying it was vital to serve the unique needs of the veteran population, and she would not allow it to be privatized.

Mr. Trump defended himself against charges from Mrs. Clinton that he supported the privatization of the VHA, but said he would provide veterans with the ability to go to private doctors and directed voters to his website to learn more about how he would reform the agency.

A review of the Trump campaign’s position paper on veterans only confuses the issue. Mr. Trump’s campaign policy paper appears to conflict with his stated position when it says, “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. Our veterans have earned the freedom to choose better or more convenient care from the doctor and facility of their choice. 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.”

If Mr. Trump’s plan is not privatizing VHA care for veterans, we would be well served by clarifications about how it is not.

2. Veteran Suicides

Secretary Clinton: Increase funding and expand effective mental health treatment.

Mr. Trump: Increase funding and expand effective mental health treatment.

On this issue, the top line for both candidates appear to be the same, but the differences in detail are clear. Both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump recognize the linkages between veteran suicides and invisible wounds, such as Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) and Post Trauma Stress (PTS), but Mrs. Clinton goes a step further in connecting access to mental health with services related to substance abuse treatment, particularly related to alcohol and opiates.

Mrs. Clinton addresses suicides, mental health, and substance abuse by outlining the need to disseminate guidelines around pain management through treatments other than opioids. In addition, she acknowledges the specific need to expand programs targeting the mental health of veterans who have participated in classified or sensitive missions without compromising non-disclosure requirements.

During the forum, Mr. Trump committed to creating a “mental health division” to improve the delivery of services, but did not provide details about how this effort would be distinguished from existing care. On his website, Mr. Trump says he will increase funding for “more and better counseling” and “support research on best practices and state of the art treatment.” While laudable, these statements are not along the lines of the specific policy recommendations made by Mrs. Clinton.

3. Veteran Homelessness

Secretary Clinton: Pledges to move “decisively to end veteran homelessness.”

Mr. Trump: Unknown.

With veteran homelessness cut nearly in half in only six years, the next Commander-in-Chief has an unprecedented opportunity to continue this progress and ensure that any episode of veteran homelessness is rare, brief, and non-recurring.

Mrs. Clinton says she would increase the funding for federal programs that support public-private partnerships, particularly in communities with the greatest need, including supporting the use of unused and excess federal properties. This language indicates an understanding of challenges faced as cities such as Los Angeles seek to use buildings and land on the campuses of VA Medical Centers to house homeless veterans.

Going further, the Clinton campaign outlines her support of improving outreach to homeless veterans in a manner that prevents recidivism through the coordination of services including counseling, job training, and transportation. The campaign even goes so far as to detail necessary changes to the Fair Housing Act to remove “ambiguities in the law regarding gender and family-specific housing, and providing shelter options that account for local demographic conditions.”

Mr. Trump has made no public statements or has literature on his website that acknowledges the progress on veteran homelessness nor how he would maintain, and hopefully expand on, these gains.

Takeaways on the Candidates Positions

Overall, the differences in tone between Secretary Clinton and Mr. Trump, as well as the amount of information on their websites about their policies related to veterans is striking.

The Trump campaign opens a 1,300 word position paper with the undocumented claim that over 300,000 veterans have died while waiting for care from the VA. Furthermore, during the forum, Mr. Trump characterized the VA as a “corrupt enterprise.”

While there are legitimate grievances about the wait times at some VA medical centers and the length of time to receive a review and award of benefits, a hyperbolic condemnation of the second largest federal agency does nothing to improve how we serve our veterans. In fact, such blanket statements cast aspersions on the very people Mr. Trump would need to work with should he become President.

The Clinton campaign, on the other hand, provides a 4,500 word factsheet on a wide range of veterans topics, including those mentioned above, as well as how she would improve IT/data alignment, improve healthcare access for female veterans and children, address military sexual trauma, treat health issues related to toxic chemicals, develop and implement veteran benefits via a “new Bradley Plan,” and describes how they would address the disability claims backlog, and improve connections to employment.

This week’s forum honed in on critical foreign policy and domestic security issues facing the next Commander-in-Chief. As our 21st century military evolves, so must our delivery of benefits and services to our veterans and their families.

While this election cycle has heard and seen strong calls for change from both sides of the political spectrum, voters and veterans deserve details about what change any candidate will bring with them.

If you want to stand with cities and ensure that the issues most important to your community have a presence in the national political debate this year, join us and sign onto our city issues platform.

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About the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.