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Trump Transition Team Holds 'Listening Session' With Veterans Groups


During the campaign, Donald Trump promised to overhaul the way the government provides health care for veterans. It's a big task. The VA is second only to the Pentagon in size. It's been through a bunch of scandals recently over health care and disability backlogs. And today, Trump's transition team met with some veteran service organizations to talk about what comes next. NPR veterans correspondent Quil Lawrence joins us now. Hi, Quil.


SHAPIRO: So what happened at this meeting at the American Legion here in Washington, D.C.?

LAWRENCE: Well, they hosted over 30 veterans service organizations in what they called a listening session for the Trump transition team. This is one of the - this is the first meeting that the Trump transition team on VA's had with an outside group. And each one sort of made its pitch for what the priorities should be.

But I'd have to say, it was clear that what was on everyone's mind is privatization. This is the possibility that the Trump administration would turn veterans' health care over to the private sector maybe with some sort of voucher. And after the meeting, the head of the American Legion, Verna Jones, said that all of the major veterans groups are dead set against that.


VERNA JONES: There's nothing like walking into a health care system - and as a veteran myself - understand that this is a system who understands us. We are not in favor of getting rid of the VA health care system. That would be, for lack of a better word, a slap in the face to all of us who've served.

SHAPIRO: Quil, why do these groups believe that privatization might be likely?

LAWRENCE: Well, I mean Trump said on the campaign trail that he would not privatize the VA. He said he favored sort of limited use of private care to help with the VA's wait time problem. But one of the vets groups today said that when they raised it with a transition team, they were not satisfied with the answer. And they're concerned because the transition team includes members of a policy group called Concerned Veterans for America - CVA - which is backed by the conservative Koch brothers.

And this week, Trump himself met with Pete Hegseth, who's an Iraq vet who used to run CVA, and he was seen at Trump Tower with a copy of CVA's roadmap to heavily privatize VA health care. The idea that Hegseth could be in the running to be Trump's VA secretary has some of these traditional vets groups very alarmed.

SHAPIRO: You've reported on some of the experiments that the VA has done where it pays for veterans to get private care. What are the lessons of those experiments?

LAWRENCE: Yeah, well, the Veterans Choice Program was set up hastily in August of 2014 after these scandals about veterans waiting months to get care at VA, and some of the VA officials were gaming the statistics, lying about the wait times. The choice program allowed vets to get private care if it was going to take the VA too long to see them or if they lived at least 40 miles from the nearest VA clinic. It didn't get off to a great start. It seemed to be just adding another layer of red tape to the whole process. And it's said to be working smoother now, but it hasn't reduced wait times.

And Trump's talked about enhancing that program, but the basic problem remains - a shortage of doctors and nurses in the VA and outside the VA. Vets groups today pointed at studies that show that the private sector might have the same problems and in fact cost more than VA health care.

SHAPIRO: Has Trump met with other prominent veterans since the election?

LAWRENCE: With some - he met with Hawaii Democrat Tulsi Gabbard. She's an Iraq vet and was a prominent supporter of Bernie Sanders - probably not in the running for secretary of VA. He met with former Republican Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, who's a National Guard vet.

Another possible pick is Republican Jeff Miller. He's been advising the Trump campaign from way back as - and he's been head of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, been very active at pushing for more accountability at VA, making it easier to fire poor officials there. But the big catch with Miller is that he's not a veteran, and so far, the VA has always been led by a veteran.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Quil Lawrence who covers veterans' issues for us. Thanks a lot, Quil.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.
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