Trump taps Koch-backed nonprofit to overhaul VA
But some patients worry alliance will lead to privatizing the system
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.