Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald on Thursday rejected criticism from a political advocacy group that he claims is calling for privatizing the department.
McDonald made his comments during an interview at The Newseum in Washington, D.C., where Politico White House Correspondent Mike Allen cited "a 10-page document of VA low-lights" given to him by Concerned Veterans for America, an Arlington, Virginia-based based organization that favors market-based federal policies.
"First of all, you have to understand the political nature of the Concerned Veterans for America," McDonald said. "I've met with [CVA Chief Executive Officer] Peter Hegseth many times. I know the people that back him politically, who fund his organization. We are not in favor of privatizing the VA."
The secretary didn't go into detail, though his reference to those supporting the group likely refers to reports that it has largely been funded by Koch Brothers' organizations.
Hegseth hit back at McDonald's remarks, saying it was disingenuous of him to avoid criticism of VA health care by claiming the group is politically motivated. He said the group wants to give veterans a choice in using the private sector, not privatize the VA.
"It is disappointing that Secretary McDonald chose to once again blatantly mischaracterize CVA's bipartisan comprehensive VA reform plan – the Veterans Independence Act,c he said in an email. "However, it is not totally surprising considering that Secretary McDonald has a history of struggling with the truth,” he added, referring to McDonald's statement in February that he served with Army Special Forces. The secretary, a West Point graduate, served with the 82nd Airborne.
In February, the organization released a plan for improving VA health care that included converting the department into a government-chartered nonprofit and creating a premium-supported insurance option for eligible veterans who want to use private-sector health care.
What would be lost by privatization would put veterans at risk and be a significant loss to the American public, McDonald said.
"If I'm sending a veteran to the private sector and that doctor does not know the military culture, does not understand how an explosion creates traumatic brain injury, that's dangerous for that veteran," he said. "The idea of privatizing the VA is antithetical to that."
The CVA isn't the only group pushing for privatization of the department, McDonald. "Members of Congress have said to me, 'Why don't you just blow up VA and give out vouchers?'" he said.
McDonald argued there's a role for government in providing care to veterans. It was VA doctors that performed the first liver transplant and VA researchers who developed the nicotine patch and the shingles vaccine, among other medical breakthroughs, he said.
What's more, the department trains 70 percent of the doctors in the United States through its internship program and is the largest employer of nurses in the country, McDonald said. None of these roles are factored into nonprofit's plan for VA health care, he said.
During the interview, McDonald also defended his efforts to hold employees, including members of the Senior Executive Service, accountable for poor performance, mismanagement and especially the wait-times scandal that rocked the department last year. Whistleblowers at the VA Medical Center in Phoenix revealed that hospital staff kept a secret list of veterans seeking appointments.
They did so to conceal from the department leaders just how many veterans were waiting for health care appointments. Investigators later found that the practice was systemic across VA and also confirmed that some veterans died before getting an appointment.
Since the revelations, there has been a growing demand on Capitol Hill to punish or otherwise hold accountable those who were involved or who are mismanaging VA operations.
McDonald said that since he came on board about a year ago, some 1,400 people have been fired from the department. But only a handful of individuals directly connected to the wait-times scandal have been pushed out and some of those were allowed to retire.
"Accountability is a lot more than just firing people," he said. "Accountability is also the fact that when I came in I found that doctor salaries were 20 percent below market, so we raised the salaries."
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