DERRY, N.H. (AP) — Hillary Rodham Clinton outlined steps to improve the Department of Veterans Affairs on Tuesday, casting herself as a protector against proposals to privatize the sprawling health care system for those who have served in the military.
In a pre-Veterans Day event, the Democratic presidential candidate said she would seek to improve veterans' health care, modernize veterans' benefits system and address an unwieldy bureaucracy that was exposed in a scandal involving chronic delays for those seeking medical care or to have their claims processed.
"These problems are serious, systemic and unacceptable. They need to be fixed," Clinton said at a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall. She added: "Privatization is a betrayal, plain and simple, and I am not going to let it happen."
Clinton's town hall meeting included questions about how she might tackle the threat posed by Islamic State militants if she becomes commander in chief. Clinton said in response to a question that she does not currently support a declaration of war against the Islamic State given the diffuse nature of the group and the potential costs. "If you have a declaration of war you better have a budget that backs it up," she said.
At another point, a man who once worked for Hewlett-Packard told Clinton that when he sees Republican candidate Carly Fiorina, a former HP chief executive, on television, he wants to reach in and "strangle her."
Clinton laughed along with the audience as the man said: "I know that doesn't sound very nice." Clinton told him: "I wouldn't mess with you."
Republicans National Committee spokeswoman Allison Moore said that the joke was in poor taste and that Clinton and Democrats had "lost all credibility claiming to be a party that stands up for women." Clinton spokeswoman Christina Reynolds said the man was "using a figure of speech that should not be taken literally."
Clinton's plan for veterans would seek fundamental changes to veterans' health care to ensure access to high quality health care in a timely fashion and address the backlog in claims. She said within the first 30 days of taking office she would convene the defense secretary and VA secretary for regular meetings and there would be "zero tolerance" for abuses and delays within the system.
Clinton's campaign has pointed to plans circulated by the conservative Concerned Veterans for America that would restructure the Veterans Health Administration into a government chartered nonprofit corporation to help it compete with the private sector. Republicans say she has overstated efforts to privatize veterans' health care.
Responding to her proposals, GOP officials said Clinton was offering hypocrisy, noting that her plan would allow the government to contract with the private sector for certain services such as special inpatient or surgical procedures and access to mental health and substance abuse treatment when the VA couldn't provide timely access to care.
"For her to accuse me and my Republican colleagues of wanting to 'privatize' the VA is, of course, inaccurate and offensive," Arizona Sen. John McCain said in a statement. He pointed to a veterans' bill signed into law last year by President Barack Obama that included an expansion of private care options.
Clinton was forced to backtrack last month after she said in an interview with MSNBC that the veterans' health care scandal was not "as widespread" as suggested, and accused Republicans of politicizing the agency.
Republicans, led by McCain, responded that Clinton lacked an appreciation for the crisis facing veterans' health care" and urged her to apologize. Phoenix was the epicenter of the wait-time scandal that led to the resignation of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and a new law overhauling the agency and authorizing billions in new spending.