VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) — Republican Donald Trump pledged Monday to expand programs that allow veterans to choose their doctor and clinics — regardless of whether they're affiliated with Department of Veterans Affairs — and still receive government-paid medical care.
In a policy speech announcing a 10-point plan for veterans, Trump said he "begins with a simple promise: Every veteran will get timely access to top-quality care."
His plan was not a way to privatize the VA, as some critics have charged, but instead was "a way of not allowing people to die waiting for doctors," Trump said.
In an interview Monday with The Associated Press, Trump said people are "are dying because they can't even get to see a doctor. This is a way that we're going to end that."
"Never again will we allow a veteran to suffer or die waiting for the care they so richly deserve," he said.
Trump was referring to a 2014 scandal in which as many as 40 veterans died while waiting for care at a Phoenix VA hospital. Similar problems were soon discovered nationwide amid revelations that veterans were waiting months for medical care even as VA employees created secret waiting lists and other falsehoods to cover up the delays.
Trump called problems at the VA under President Barack Obama "widespread and totally inexcusable" and said that under his leadership, "We are going to save money and we are going to save lives."
A spokesman for Democrat Hillary Clinton's campaign said Trump's plan would "irreversibly" lead to privatization of the VA.
Trump's plan "is not a fix at all; it's an ideological crusade" that "would gut the VA of the resources needed to provide high-quality, coordinated care," said Bishop Garrison, an Army veteran and Clinton adviser.
The American Federation of Government Employees called Trumps' plan privatization by another name.
"Donald Trump wants to throw veterans to the wolves," said the group's president, J. David Cox.
Cox accused Trump of "writing a blank check to huge hospital corporations to profit off the suffering of veterans."
A law approved in the wake of the wait-time scandal created a "Veterans Choice" program that allows veterans to seek private care at government expense, but the program is limited to veterans who have waited at least 30 days for an appointment or live at least 40 miles from a VA health site.
Trump called that the "wrong policy" and said veterans "are not being treated right."
Trump also said Monday he will crack down on wrongdoing at the VA.
"We made a promise to these heroes. You defend America, and America will defend you," he said in a speech, adding that he would fire or discipline VA employees who "fail our veterans" or breach the public trust.
In an interview after the speech, Trump offered few specifics beyond the 10-point plan, which includes an increase in mental health professionals and a special "White House hotline" dedicated to veterans. But he said he was confident it would save taxpayers money.
"I think it's going to cost less money than what's happening now," he said.
Asked how he would negotiate due-process laws that have made it difficult for the VA to fire employees accused of wrongdoing, Trump said that would be no problem.
"We're going to create a system where we get it done," he said.
Asked about union objections, Trump said he has "been dealing with unions all my life. And you can deal with unions if you know what you're doing."
Trump has been working to repair his relationship with veterans since he suggested early in his campaign that Arizona Sen. John McCain was not a war hero because he was captured during the Vietnam War. Trump also raised eyebrows earlier this year when he failed to immediately disclose which veterans' charities he'd given money to following a fundraiser he'd held in place of a GOP debate.
Trump said Monday he and McCain "work together fine," and said he is considering Florida Rep. Jeff Miller, the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, as a possible VA secretary. Miller spoke to the crowd ahead of Trump.
"He certainly is someone a lot of people respect," Trump said of Miller, who is retiring from Congress and has pushed measures to increase accountability at the VA.
In his speech Monday, Trump also addressed the killing of five police officers in Dallas during a protest against a pair of recent police shootings of black men.
"America's police and law enforcement personnel are what separates civilization from total chaos and the destruction of our country as we know it," he said. "It's time for our hostility against our police -- and against all members of law enforcement -- to end, and end immediately."
But he also referenced the two black men killed in recent police shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota, calling them "tragic deaths" that make clear that "a lot of work must be done" to ensure every American feels that their safety is protected.
The remarks were a sharp contrast to the speech Trump delivered in the wake of the Orlando shooting, when he accused American Muslims of being too reluctant to cooperate with police.
The speech was the latest in a series of teleprompter-delivered prepared remarks aimed at convincing weary Republicans that Trump has the discipline and control to mount a credible general election bid in a likely faceoff with Clinton.
Trump again slammed Clinton's use of a private email server while serving as secretary of state, and said her actions were "willful, intentional and unlawful."
The event began with remarks from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is one of a handful of potential vice presidential contenders Trump is currently vetting. Trump has been bringing his finalists along with him on the campaign trail in a parade that brings to mind reality show tryouts.
Under a plan Trump first announced last fall, eligible veterans would be able to bring their veterans' ID cards to any private doctor or facility that accepts Medicare and receive immediate treatment. The change, he argued, would help improve service and decrease wait times by adding competition.
Associated Press writer Jonathan Lemire in New York contributed to this report.
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