MAULDIN, S.C. — Mitt Romney suggested on Friday that he was open to introducing “private sector competition” into the health care system U.S. military veterans receive.
At a campaign event in South Carolina, Romney raised the possibility of a voucher system.
“If you’re the government, they know there’s nowhere else you guys can go, you’re stuck,” Romney told a group of veterans at Mutt’s BBQ restaurant here. “Sometimes you wonder if there would be some way to introduce private sector competition, somebody else who could come in and say each solder has ‘X’ thousand dollars attributed to them and then they can choose where they want to go in the government system or the private system with the money that follows them.”
Romney added, “Like what happens with schools in Florida where people have a voucher that goes with him.”
Democrats immediately pounced on Romney’s remarks, blasting out information about Sen. John McCain’s plan to privatize the VA in 2008 and articles that suggested veteran’s at the time weren’t happy with the proposal. The Veterans of Foreign Wars weren’t pleased either: In a statement to the Talking Points Memo, VFW spokesman Jerry Newberry said, “The VFW doesn’t support privatization of veterans health care. This is an issue that seems to come around every election cycle.”
In response to Democratic criticism, Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said: “Mitt Romney is only interested in providing veterans with the world-class care they deserve and reversing the defense cuts and failed policies of the Obama administration. He did not lay out any new policy proposals today.”
And here in South Carolina, veterans who heard Romney speak had a more positive reaction, saying that his interest in how the VA system works seemed “genuine” and that they appreciated his desire to learn about what they had gone through.
Romney asked several specific questions of the group about the care they had received from the VA and what they thought were the biggest obstacles to receiving adequate care.
The only woman sitting at the table, veteran Joan Betros, grew emotional when she asked Romney what he would do to boost morale, saying she’s asked by parents of children who have lost their lives while serving if their “lives were in vain.”
“There are these big question marks over the families’ heads today,” said Betros. “We’re spread so thin. And when they come back, what do we do for them and how do we let them know their children’s lives weren’t in vain? We need a president who can assist us with the morality of this and I feel like morale is really low.”
Romney, sighing audibly, paused briefly before answering Betros by railing against what he considers Obama’s infrequent communication with the nation about the status of the war.
“I think when you’re at war and you have men and women at war you expect the president of the United States to address the nation on a regular basis,” said Romney, “to bring the people up to date as to what’s happening and have the people of America know you’re at war, and why you’re at war, and where the successes are and where the problems are. If you’re the president of the United States, the people of America deserve a regular briefing and a regular fireside chat, if you will, if you go back to the days of Second World War when the president spoke about the sacrifice being made.
“One of the things I think that has been sorely lacking in our nation when we’ve been at war these past many years is a constant reminder to the American people that we are at war and people are making huge sacrifices, and bringing the American people in to understand what’s being done, where we are,” said Romney. “Today, it’s almost like out of sight, out of mind.”
Before today, the last time President Obama addressed the nation about the status of the war was on Oct. 21, when he announced the complete drawdown of troops in Iraq by December of this year.
Many of the 13 veterans who joined Romney at the table today spoke about the troubles veterans as a group have when it comes to finding jobs.
While the nation’s unemployment rate is 9 percent, the rate of rate of unemployment for veterans is a 12.1 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
One veteran poignantly noted that many employers simply do not understand how to read resumes of those who have served overseas, telling Romney, “There are a lot of employers out there that don’t understand what it takes to be a company commander or what you have to do, they think all we do is shoot people, kill people and fight in the jungle and fight in the desert.
“They don’t understand the skills this job requires,” said the veteran. “The economy right where it stands now is the biggest enemy for a United States soldier.”
“You hit the nail on the head,” Romney responded, “I totally agree.”
In a press availability after the event, his first since Oct. 28, Romney fielded questions about his own foreign policy plan as it related to troops in Afghanistan and his oft-repeated assertion that he’d make his decisions as advised by the troops on the ground.
“I think that the ultimate drawdown date is going to continue to be conditioned by, we’re going to listen to what the generals in the field say, but I don’t have any reason at this stage to dispute or disagree with [Obama's time frame],” said Romney. “Where I think he’s made an error is in [the] September drawdown of the surge forces. That, in my view, should have been delayed until at least December, consistent with the views of with the commanders in the field. I believe that September 2012 drawdown date for the surge forces in Afghanistan was unfortunately driven more by politics than what was right for the needs of our troops.”
While most of the event took on a more serious tone, Romney, who was accompanied to the event by son Tagg and granddaughter Allie, made sure to fill his plate not once but twice with barbeque, getting out of his SUV at the end of the event to run back inside and fill another plate.