Freshman Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez again this week defended the Veterans Affairs health system as a vital national resource and criticized Republican opponents of twisting her words on VA operations as part of an effort to undermine the system.
“There is a myth that all VAs everywhere are broken,” the New York Democrat said during a town hall meeting on Monday. Video of the event was posted online by the Free Beacon.
“The idea that if we can starve our public systems … if we can starve them of budgets and make sure that they can’t do their job, then we can say the whole system should be thrown away.”
The comments build on others Ocasio-Cortez made at an April 17 event with union groups, warning of an assault on the Department of Veterans Affairs by Republican leaders who want to “privatize” the department.
But political critics insist the comments show a lack of understanding and compassion by the rising progressive star on the problems facing the VA. They point to reports of long wait times for care at some VA facilities and difficulties with the existing community care programs as proof of a system in need of dramatic reforms.
“Problems and inconsistencies like that are the definition of a system that needs fixing,” Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., and ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, told Fox News last week. “I am baffled as to how Rep. Ocasio-Cortez fails to see that.
“When you don't know anything about anything, you should probably keep your mouth shut or everyone will know you don't know anything.”
At the heart of the fight are sweeping changes to outside health care options set to go into effect in early June. President Donald Trump for months has touted the moves (approved by Congress last summer with bipartisan support) as his administration bringing “choice” to veterans for the first time.
The rules as written by VA officials could more than triple the number of veterans eligible for taxpayer-funded care at private-sector clinics. Numerous Democrats, including House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., have expressed concerns the changes will siphon money and attention away from VA facilities, undermining the system.
Roe and Trump officials have defended the moves as necessary to modernize the health care system by making it more responsive to the needs and wants of veterans.
Ocasio-Cortez’ entry into the debate has elevated the issue beyond just the veterans community. She has cast the fight as a conflict between conservatives who are set on dismantling public safety nets to the benefit of more expensive private-sector options, and has advocated for expanded government-backed health care for all Americans.
Her office did not respond to requests for comment. At the union event earlier this month, she said supporters of the private-care expansion are “trying to fix the VA for pharmaceutical companies, they are trying to fix the VA for insurance corporations, and, ultimately they are trying to fix the VA for a for-profit healthcare industry that does not put people or veterans first.”
Just a few days later, Trump took to Twitter to criticize her comments, saying that VA “is doing great ... but that is only because of the Trump Administration.”
Both sets of comments drew pushback this week from fellow Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts lawmaker who recently entered the presidential race. During an interview on CNN Sunday, the Iraq War veteran said that “the VA is broken” but supported more investment in the system.
"It doesn't mean that we should just dismantle the VA. If you ask veterans, they want to fix the VA," he said. "We don't want the VA to go away, we just want it to work better. And it's not working right now, so don't tell me the system isn't broken."
VA officials, including Secretary Robert Wilkie, have repeatedly dismissed accusations of privatization of core department responsibilities and said the new community care rules will go into effect on June 6, barring congressional intervention.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.