Trump taps Koch-backed non­profit to over­haul VA

But some pa­tients worry al­liance will lead to pri­va­tiz­ing the sys­tem

The Denver Post - - NEWS | NATION & WORLD - By Lisa Rein and Dan Lamothe

wash­ing­ton » Pres­i­dent-elect Trump is lean­ing on a once-ob­scure group backed by con­ser­va­tive bil­lion­aires Charles and David Koch as he seeks to make good on a cam­paign prom­ise to over­haul veterans’ care he has de­nounced as a tragic fail­ure.

Con­cerned Veterans for Amer­ica was founded as a po­lit­i­cal ad­vo­cacy group just four years ago. It has lit­tle con­nec­tive tis­sue with other veterans groups, whose mem­ber­ship-heavy or­ga­ni­za­tions have long dom­i­nated pol­icy dis­cus­sions in Wash­ing­ton.

But Con­cerned Veterans is prov­ing to be an in­flu­en­tial force in the in­com­ing Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The lead­ing can­di­dates to run the sprawl­ing De­part­ment of Veterans Af­fairs, the sec­ond-largest fed­eral agency, have close ties to the group. A se­nior ad­viser and for­mer ad­viser to Con­cerned Veterans serve on the tran­si­tion team. And as the Trump cam­paign crafted its blue­print for VA, it drew heav­ily from the group’s vi­sion of a health-care sys­tem with a dras­ti­cally smaller gov­ern­ment foot­print and a fast route to fir­ing poor per­form­ers.

Tra­di­tional veterans groups are chaf­ing at Con­cerned Veterans’ ris­ing pro­file in Trump’s or­bit and in Congress. They re­ject its high­est-pro­file pro­posal, to al­low veterans to see doc­tors of their choos­ing out­side the VA med­i­cal sys­tem. They’ve called the new model a first step to­ward turn­ing the sys­tem over to the pri­vate sec­tor, a move they say would lead to its col­lapse.

On the cam­paign trail, Trump told sup­port­ers he would give veterans a card to use

at any pri­vate doc­tor’s of­fice and the gov­ern­ment would pay.

While other ad­vo­cates have en­dorsed out­side med­i­cal care if VA can­not pro­vide it, “Our line in the sand is that we want VA to be the guar­an­tor of care,” said Ray Kelly, leg­isla­tive direc­tor for Veterans of For­eign Wars. “Un­der a pri­vate plan, if I had a card that said I can go wher­ever I want, I’m on my own try­ing to find a doc­tor.”

Con­cerned Veterans of­fi­cials say their crit­ics mis­rep­re­sent their goals, which are not to pri­va­tize or dis­man­tle VA but rather give veterans more op­tions for care.

“We’re big ad­vo­cates of giv­ing them more health­care choices,” said Dan Cald­well, the group’s vice pres­i­dent of pol­icy and com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

The ten­sions emerged this week as the tran­si­tion team pre­pared to meet Thurs­day with as many as 30 groups at the Amer­i­can Le­gion’s Wash­ing­ton head­quar­ters. Paul Rieck­hoff, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of Amer­ica, a more mod­er­ate voice for younger veterans, said he’s “ex­tremely con­cerned” that Trump is not meet­ing with ad­vo­cates him­self.

The pres­i­dent-elect did meet this week with Pete Hegseth, a Fox News con­trib­u­tor, Iraq War vet­eran and Con­cerned Veterans for­mer pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive who has emerged as a con­tender for VA sec­re­tary. Rieck­hoff called Hegseth the “for­mer leader of a con­tro­ver­sial and par­ti­san po­lit­i­cal group.”

While Con­cerned Veterans has joined veterans groups in de­nounc­ing chronic ben­e­fit back­logs, de­lays to pa­tient care and a lack of ac­count­abil­ity for VA em­ploy­ees who break the rules, its mis­sion is po­lit­i­cal ad­vo­cacy, not help­ing veterans with ac­cess to ben­e­fits and ser­vices.

Founded in 2012, Con­cerned Veterans found its voice two years later, when VA man­agers in Phoenix and other cities were found to have in­structed their staffs to fal­sify pa­tient sched­ul­ing lists to cover up long wait times for care.

The group is part of a net­work of po­lit­i­cally ac­tive non­prof­its backed by the in­dus­tri­al­ist Koch broth­ers and other wealthy con­ser­va­tive donors. The Kochs have been a po­lit­i­cal light­ning rod for years, with Democrats charg­ing that they use their wealth and po­lit­i­cal net­work to push a small-gov­ern­ment agenda and in­flu­ence Repub­li­cans.

This year the net­work planned to in­vest about $250 mil­lion in po­lit­i­cal and pol­icy cam­paigns run by Con­cerned Veterans and af­fil­i­ated ad­vo­cacy groups such as Amer­i­cans for Pros­per­ity, the LIBRE Ini­tia­tive and Gen­er­a­tion Op­por­tu­nity. Con­cerned Veterans of­fi­cials said they do not dis­close in­di­vid­ual donors.

While the Koch oper­a­tion dis­avowed Trump dur­ing the cam­paign, con­demn­ing his calls for a ban on Mus­lim im­mi­gra­tion, Con­cerned Veterans spon­sored nu­mer­ous town hall meet­ings dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial pri­maries and gave $3.5 mil­lion to GOP Se­nate can­di­dates, in­clud­ing win­ners Pa­trick J. Toomey, R-Pa., and Marco Ru­bio, R-Fla.

Hegseth is not the only can­di­date to lead VA with ties to the group. Con­cerned Veterans has worked closely with re­tir­ing House Veterans Af­fairs Com­mit­tee Chair­man Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who shares its com­mit­ment to faster dis­ci­pline for em­ploy­ees and a smaller bu­reau­cracy.

An­other con­tender is for­mer Mas­sachusetts Repub­li­can Sen. Scott Brown, who re­tired in 2014 as a colonel in the Mas­sachusetts Na­tional Guard. On Thurs­day, for­mer Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was men­tioned in news re­ports as well.

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