WASHINGTON (AP) — Lifetime health care and other benefits are part of the bargain for millions of Americans who put their lives on the line in the armed forces, and it's become clear the Department of Veterans Affairs isn't holding up its end.
Veterans care has gained prominence since 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. Veterans waited months for care even as VA employees created secret waiting lists and other falsehoods to cover up the delays.
A 2014 law signed by President Barack Obama aimed to alleviate the delays many veterans faced in getting treatment at VA hospitals and clinics and make it easier to fire hospital administrators and senior executives. Two years later, many of the problems remain and few executives have been fired.
Meanwhile, suicide among veterans remains a national crisis, with an estimated 20 veterans taking their own lives every day.
Donald Trump says he will expand programs that allow veterans to choose their doctor and still receive government-paid medical care. Hillary Clinton vows to block any efforts to privatize VA health care and pledges to ensure veterans have access to timely care.
There are an estimated 21.6 million veterans in the United States. Among them, nearly 9 million are enrolled in health care provided by the VA. About 4.3 million veterans get disability compensation and nearly 900,000 have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
With nearly 370,000 employees and an annual budget of nearly $167 billion, the VA is the largest civilian agency in the government. Veterans are also a politically consequential group. Nearly 70 percent voted in the 2012 presidential election, a higher rate than the general population.
Here's a look at where the candidates stand on veterans' issues:
ACCESS TO CARE
TRUMP: Says he will sharply expand programs that allow veterans to choose their doctor — regardless of whether the doctor is affiliated with the VA — and still receive government-paid medical care. Trump says that's not privatized care but "a way of not allowing people to die waiting for doctors."
The two-year-old "choice" program allows veterans to seek private care at government expense but is limited to veterans who have waited 30 days for an appointment or live 40 miles from a VA health center. Trump says he would vastly expand private options, calling problems at the VA under Obama "widespread and totally inexcusable."
CLINTON: Pledges to ensure veterans have access to timely, high-quality care and vows to block efforts to privatize the Veterans Health Administration, the VA's health-care arm. Clinton says the VA must retain "the ultimate responsibility" for veterans care, citing leadership in areas such as prosthetics and traumatic brain injury.
Clinton also wants to bolster veterans' benefits, including education and housing aid included in the GI bill. She would ensure that military sexual trauma is acknowledged as a disability under VA rules, with a burden of proof similar to other types of trauma.
TRUMP: Pledges to fire or discipline VA employees who fail veterans or breach the public trust. He also would deny bonuses to any VA employee who wastes money and would create a special "White House hotline" dedicated to veterans. If a valid complaint is not addressed, "I will pick up the phone and fix it myself if I have to," Trump said.
CLINTON: Says VA supervisors must be empowered to suspend or remove underperforming employees "in accordance with due process" and vows to bolster protections for whistleblowers who point out wasteful programs or poor performance. Would create an oversight board with representation from veterans groups to monitor care and ensure accountability.
TRUMP: Would increase funding for post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and suicide prevention services. Trump also would boost funding for research on best practices and treatments to address depression and other "invisible wounds" to "keep our veterans alive, healthy and whole."
CLINTON: Vows to end the veteran suicide epidemic and ensure that all veterans have access to world-class medical and counseling services. She would increase funding for mental health care and substance abuse treatment, particularly for alcohol and opiate abuse, including private-sector care when necessary.
TRUMP: Says America has broken its promise to provide veterans with an array of services or benefits. Pledges to eliminate a long-standing backlog for disability claims through better management, cutting "excessive red tape" and increased employee productivity.
CLINTON: Pledges to end the benefits backlog through increased overtime, higher productivity and initiatives to streamline and simplify the claims process. She also would automate simple applications and improve the VA's partnership with the Defense Department to "anticipate and prepare for future waves of VA claims across the government."
TRUMP: Vows to increase funding for mental health programs, job training and placement services, including incentives for companies that hire veterans. Pledges to help put veterans "on a path to success" as they leave active duty by helping them apply their skills to civilian life.
CLINTON: Pledges to "move decisively" to end veteran homelessness by expanding public-private partnerships and supporting community-based organizations that work with veterans. Would propose adding veteran status to the Fair Housing Act to prevent housing discrimination against veterans and would expand counseling, job training and transportation for veterans.
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