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Vets Groups to Trump Team: Don't Privatize VA

A visitor leaves the Sacramento Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Rancho Cordova, Calif., on April 2, 2015. Rich Pedroncelli/AP
A visitor leaves the Sacramento Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Rancho Cordova, Calif., on April 2, 2015. Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Dozens of veterans groups met with members of President-elect Donald Trump's transition team on Thursday to outline their priorities for the incoming administration, including opposing any push to privatize the Veterans Affairs Department.

The roughly two-hour meeting took place behind closed doors at the American Legion's headquarters in Washington, D.C., according to the organization's Executive Director Verna Jones, who spoke to Military.com afterward.

The meeting was attended by representatives from about 30 veterans service organizations and some 10 members of the transition team, including Omarosa Onee Manigault, a chaplain in the California State Military Reserve who appeared on the NBC show "The Apprentice" starring Trump, officials said.

The event was primarily a listening session for the transition team members, who were led by former Senate Budget Committee Staff Director Eric Ueland, Jones said.

"They did a great job at listening -- they did exactly that," she said. "They took a lot of notes."

Each of the veteran service organizations spent several minutes outlining their priorities, which varied by group but in general shared a similar theme of keeping the VA strong and taking care of veterans, Jones said.

"Pretty much we all were saying the same things: Make sure that veterans are taken care of; they receive health care; make sure they get their benefits -- education; take care of the families and of the families of fallen soldiers and caregivers," she said. "All the organizations were here to work with and collaborate with the next administration."

Jones said none of the organizations in attendance voiced support for privatizing the VA.

"The American Legion absolutely opposes privatization," she said. "We strongly advocate for a healthy VA health care system for veterans."

While Trump has said he would not seek to privatize the VA, he's expected to push for a major shake-up at the department.

On the campaign trail, Trump blasted the VA as "almost a corrupt enterprise." As part of a reform package, he proposed giving veterans greater access to private care if they face waits of several days for appointments at hospitals and clinics run by the VA.

"People are … dying waiting to see a doctor," he said during one of the debates. "Under a part of my plan, if they have that long wait, they walk outside, they go to the local doctor. They choose the doctor. They choose the hospital, whether it's public or private. They get themselves better. In many cases, it's a minor procedure or a pill."

Roughly three in four veterans who responded to a Military.com reader survey support the idea.

"It is hard to get treatment," Marvin Parker, a Vietnam veteran who medically retired from the Army as a staff sergeant and who has used VA facilities for decades, told Military.com at the time.

Jones acknowledged "there are issues with the VA" and said the Legion is often the first to point them out. The organization regularly interviews vets in local communities for their feedback and conducts quality review visits at VA hospitals, medical centers and clinics, she said.

"We're able to give that information to the leadership at those health care facilities and bring that information back to Congress and create resources and programs for veterans," she said. "We absolutely believe the VA health care system is … the best system for veterans to receive their health care."

The Legion and other members of the "big six" veteran service organizations -- including Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vietnam Veterans of America, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America and American Veterans -- plan to meet again with the transition team on Dec. 9.

-- Brendan McGarry can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.

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