If Trump wants to stay popular among veterans he has to do more

If Trump wants to stay popular among veterans he has to do more
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This week, President TrumpDonald John TrumpJulián Castro: It's time for House Democrats to 'do something' about Trump Warren: Congress is 'complicit' with Trump 'by failing to act' Sanders to join teachers, auto workers striking in Midwest MORE was the keynote speaker at the AMVETS National Convention, where the veterans service organization celebrated its 75th anniversary. The audience — consisting primarily of veterans and their families — was mostly receptive to his remarks. 

This is not surprising, given that veterans voted from Trump by a nearly two to one margin in the 2016 presidential election. And, in a July 2019 national poll, veterans’ support of Trump remained stronger than that of the public at large.

However, if Trump wants to maintain the political support of veterans who voted for him in 2016, he must adapt his approach to discussing veterans’ issues. Trump must shift his focus from talking about what he has done in the past, to what he is going to do for veterans in the future. 

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Throughout the 2016 campaign, Trump garnered attention from military and veterans’ communities by frequently focusing on the VA during his campaign speeches and rallies, a cabinet department often overlooked during presidential campaigns. 

“The VA scandals that have occurred are widespread and totally inexcusable,” Trump stated at one event, “[a]s we know, many have died waiting for care that never came. A permanent stain on our government.”

By contrast, during his AMVETS speech, Trump, after touting several pieces of legislation that he passed on veterans issues, including the MISSION Act, the Accountability Act, and the Appeals Modernization Act, stated that, with regard to VA, “I’m not hearing bad stories. I’m hearing all good stories.”

Unfortunately for Trump, this statement is an example of his penchant for hyperbole and bravado that often lands him in hot water with policy organizations and gives fodder to his critics. Despite his series of legislative accomplishments, the VA is still in need of substantial improvements in many areas. 

For example, the day before Trump’s remarks, Dr. Robert Morris Levy, a former VA doctor in Arkansas, was charged with three counts of involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of three veteran-patients whose records he allegedly falsified in order to conceal previous misdiagnoses. One veteran died of prostate cancer after Levy reviewed a scan and determined that the veteran did not have cancer.

In addition, in an ironic twist last week, USA Today reported that Brandon Coleman, a whistleblower specialist at the VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, was himself seeking whistleblower protection from the Office of the Special Counsel. 

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The whistleblower office is also currently under investigation by the VA Office of the Inspector General regarding concerns that it has retaliated against whistleblowers, with a report expected in September.

Moreover, the veterans’ suicide epidemic continues to rage on, with no clear solutions in sight. Just two weeks ago, a veteran died by suicide in the parking lot of a North Carolina VA medical center, adding to a string of similar incidents — according to VA data obtained by The Washington Post, nineteen suicides occurred on VA property between October 2017 and November 2018, and five more have occurred so far in 2019.

If Trump wants to maintain his approval ratings among veterans going into the 2020 election cycle, he would be wise to acknowledge that, despite the progress he’s made, there is still much more to be done to improve the lives of our nation’s veterans. 

To this end, there are several items on Trump’s ten-point plan from 2016 to reform the VA that have not been fully accomplished. The accountability law isn’t perfect, there are still a large number of mental health vacancies, and “a commission to investigate all the fraud, cover-ups, and wrong-doing that has taken place in the VA” has not been formed. 

In addition to acknowledging that many of these items remain a work in progress, many veteran-voters are eager to hear what Trump, as well as his challengers in the democratic primary field, are planning to do to address these issues going forward. 

Here are a few suggestions that 2020 candidates may want to consider: 

A commission to study the disability and pension compensation system: 

While health care has taken up most of the bandwidth in conversations about VA in recent years, the disability compensation system is desperately in need of an overhaul. A regulation rewrite project intended to bring clarity and simplification of applicable disability provisions that began in 2001 under then-Secretary Tony Principi remains unfinished. 

In the recent Supreme Court case, Kisor v. Wilkie, the high court affirmed that ambiguous agency regulations are entitled to a high degree of interpretative deference. Since VA will be allowed to continue interpreting their own disability regulations with a high degree of deference, clarity and simplification of these regulations should be a high priority.

Department-wide modernization initiative

The disability benefits system is not the only aspect of the VA in need of modernization efforts. Although VA has made great-strides in modernizing its electronic health records system, this effort also remains incomplete. 

Moreover, many other VA systems remain woefully outdated. This was on full display last fall when a computer glitch in a 50-year old system caused significant delays in the delivery of GI bill payments. This led then-Chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Phil RoeDavid (Phil) Phillip RoeHouse panel delays vote on surprise medical bills legislation If Trump wants to stay popular among veterans he has to do more Want to solve surprise medical bills? Listen to patients MORE (R-Tenn.) to declare the issue “a trainwreck.”

Re-booting the joining forces initiative 

According to the Obama administration, the Joining Forces initiative “works hand in hand with the public and private sectors to ensure that service members, veterans, and their families have the tools they need to succeed throughout their lives.” As Dr. Richard Stone recently testified before the House Veteran’s Affairs Committee, there are some things VA cannot do alone. In order for VA to provide the best services to veterans across all its business lines, insights and best practices from the public and private sectors should once again be encouraged to "join forces."

Veterans comprise 13 percent of the voting-population, and their voting power should not be over-looked by any candidate. Trump successfully prioritized veterans’ issues in 2016 by highlighting areas of improvement. All candidates would be wise to do so in 2020. 

Rory E. Riley-Topping served as a litigation staff attorney for the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), where she represented veterans and their survivors before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. She also served as the staff director and counsel for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs for former Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). You can find her on Twitter: @RileyTopping.