In anticipation of the upcoming presidential election, Military Times partnered with a dozen veterans organizations earlier this year to ask the major party candidates about their views on key issues facing the veterans community.
Each campaign was presented the same set of questions and agreed to provide video responses to the veterans groups. Earlier this month, President Donald Trump’s campaign instead provided his answers in a series of written responses. Former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign provided videos addressing the questions.
All of those responses are included below, with a transcript of each Biden video for easier comparison with the Trump campaign’s submissions.
The result is a comprehensive look at each candidate’s plans for veterans mental health care, education and employment policy, community care programs and pandemic support efforts for veterans.
The questions are arranged by topic and you can jump down to a specific section using the navigation buttons.
Coronavirus and medical care
Question from The American Legion: The American Legion has long made a top priority of improved access to high-quality VA health care. Timely access is impeded due to VA’s well-documented shortage of nurses and other key medical providers.
Now, with the coronavirus pandemic straining the system, what will your administration do to keep improving access to normal medical care — a promise of the MISSION Act — at this time of high and complicated demand for beds and specialized care?
Trump: My budget reflects my priority for our veterans and my budget requests for VA in 2021 was the largest in the agency’s history. VA has over 397,000 onboard employees today, about 50,000 more employees than it had five years ago under Obama-Biden.
This fiscal year alone, 42,000 new employees have been hired to address the increased staffing required to meet demand for services, improved access, reduced wait times, improved quality, enhanced veteran satisfaction, and overall mission growth (i.e., staffing capacity need). VA has requested and received authority to hire back on retired doctors and nurses and expanded practice authority for nurse practitioners to care more for veterans.
VA telehealth has also grown like never before. VA delivered more than 2 million episodes of telehealth care in fiscal 2019. This year to date, VA has delivered more than 9 million telehealth episodes to date, including over 1.1 million virtual mental health appointments.
Veterans have taken notice. Veteran trust in VA reached an all-time high in April — up 19 points since I took office. A Veterans of Foreign Wars survey found that more than 90 percent of respondents would recommend VA care to other veterans.
Biden: Providing the highest quality medical care in the best facilities in the world is an essential part of fulfilling our sacred obligation to our veterans. We have to start by restoring and protecting trust in the VA. As president, I promise you always to fight as I always have for world-class veterans-oriented and veteran-centered health care:
* using the full power of the federal government to get every vet with COVID treated;
* making sure that VA staff has the life-saving PPE they need;
* making sure the rest of the system has the resources it needs to keep caring for everyone else;
* ensuring quality care throughout the community care network;
* expanding access to telemedicine, especially in rural and under-served areas;
* getting VA the authority, flexibility, and incentives to hire top doctors and medical talent, including an adequate number of nurses. That means cutting the red tape to hire them, and increasing their pay so it’s competitive with the private sector.
Across the VA, we’re facing a staffing shortage of nearly 50,000 positions. Too many of these vacancies are critical roles like nurses, psychiatrists, psychologists. We have to do more to incentivize and retain talent and health care providers. Shortages in the VA are the canary in the coal mine for the rest of the entire U.S. medical system. We need to build capacity across the board so there are enough trained, qualified care providers to fill those important positions. That means expanding professional schools and increasing incentives to have family practices and practices in rural communities.
But rest assured, I’m never going to seek to privatize the VA. You earned your benefits. They should be specialized, supportive, and second-to-none. Second-to-none. I will never defund the VA.
Question from the Wounded Warrior Project: After reaching the lowest veteran unemployment rate in nearly 20 years, the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly, negatively affected those efforts and returned a historically challenged job-seeking population back to looking for meaningful employment. The July Department of Labor jobs report noted a veteran unemployment rate of 8.8 percent and an even higher unemployment rate for disabled veterans.
With approximately 200,000 service members transitioning out of the military into civilian life per year, today’s veterans face significant employment challenges. What can we do as a nation, or individually, to create employment opportunities for veterans and what do you believe can be done to ensure that veterans leaving the military are prepared for the new, evolving workplace of the future?
Trump: My administration created the greatest economy in human history for veterans and all Americans, and we will do so again. In 2019, veteran unemployment declined to an average monthly veteran unemployment rate of 3.1 percent, the best since 2000, and five of those months in 2019 achieved lower seasonally adjusted rates than any month from any other year on record.
While the impact of COVID has taken its toll, veterans maintain a better employment situation today than they did during the depths of the Great Recession and their unemployment rate today is nearly 2 percent better than that of non-veterans. We recognize the value of veterans in the workplace and want to keep them employed, especially during these challenging times.
The VA and Department of Labor are committed to increasing veteran employment. The VA has numerous programs designed to assist veterans in preparing for, obtaining, and retaining employment. VBA begins providing employment support during transition and continues to provide support throughout the military to civilian life cycle, including military to civilian transition support, direct training for jobs within VA (SkillBridge), outreach and personalized career counseling to ensure veterans have the support and guidance to select their education and career paths, and education benefits to ensure veterans have the skills and credentials to compete in the job market.
Through the HIRE Vets Medallion Program, the Department of Labor provides the only federal award that recognizes employers who hire, retain and support veterans. I signed the program into law in 2017 and last year, in the first official year of the program, Secretary Scalia awarded 427 employers from around the nation for recruiting, employing and retaining America’s veterans. The award recipients hired more than 52,000 veterans. This year, the second official year of the program, we had a 60 percent increase in the number of applications and look forward to announcing the awards near Veterans Day.
We are also fighting for our military families and their employment. One of the most important things that we have done in order to ease the burdens faced by licensed military spouses is to make the issue, and the states' treatment of the issue, more transparent. In September, the Department of Labor also launched its first-ever transition assistance workshop specializing in the employment situation of military spouses, so we can make sure to continue to support these heroes.
Biden: Every single transitioning service member deserves our gratitude and our respect, not just for what they’ve done in the past, on the battlefield, but for what they continue to do every day for our country. America benefits enormously from the leadership, talent, experience, and diversity they bring to work every single day in their civilian capacity as well.
We need to do more to match them with the opportunities that they can capitalize on. That’s why President Obama and I focused on bringing down veterans' unemployment, ultimately cutting it in half.
We made it easier for veterans to carry over their military credentials into civilian jobs. For example, if you’ve driven Humvees in Iraq, we can waive your tests for a commercial driver’s license. And I’m incredibly proud that, at the end of the Obama-Biden administration, we increased the percentage of veterans serving in the executive branch of the federal government from 24 percent to 32 percent.
That’s why my wife Jill and First Lady Michelle Obama created the Joining Forces initiative, which resulted in companies hiring and training 1.5 million vets and their military spouses.
Now, this botched response to COVID has cost many of them their jobs. That ends with me. As president, I’ll:
* expand job training and placement to prepare veterans for future work, and let them access it before their active duty service ends;
* make the Transition Assistance Program more relevant to today’s job market;
* strengthen corporate mentorships and partnerships and veterans;
* educate CEOs to see how hiring vets is good for business;
* and relaunch and expand Joining Forces to get military families and veterans the economic opportunity they deserve.
They’ve earned it and will make us all better if they are able to participate.
Question from Student Veterans of America: Student veterans are among the most successful students in higher education, with higher GPAs, stronger graduation rates, and more resilience than their peers. Today’s student veterans are also proven high performers, especially in uncertain times. With many classes now being taught online due to COVID-19, what steps will you take to ensure student veterans continue to receive a quality education and succeed post-graduation?
Trump: In 2017, I signed into law the Forever GI Bill to ensure that student veterans can take advantage of the educational benefits they’ve earned at any time throughout their lifetime, increasing benefits to Purple Heart recipients, and ensuring more people are eligible for Yellow Ribbon.
During COVID, our VA has continued paying full GI Bill benefits to students, including housing benefits, despite many universities switching to online learning.
Our vision is to enable all veterans to reach their full potential in the workplace. It’s not good enough just to find them jobs. We want them to find work that will challenge them, help them learn and grow, and put them in a position to make the biggest impact. Achieving this vision not only helps veterans, their families and the companies they serve, but is essential for America’s prosperity and security.
We will continue to support our great student veterans in the programs of education they choose for themselves so they can succeed post-graduation.
Biden: Our student veterans give so much of their lives to protect our nation. They came home to build a future, and now they find it all disrupted by a virus that we could have done so much better to contain.
On day one, as president, I will immediately implement the national strategy that I laid out back in March to beat COVID. Only then will we get our lives back.
And when we do, I’ll make sure we build back better. That includes boosting every opportunity for veterans to build a civilian life of purpose, with better job prospects, stronger community ties, and more opportunities for education.
As president, I’ll make sure vets and their family members can still use their educational benefits, even if schools have moved to remote learning, and they’ll have the equipment they need to succeed if it’s only remote learning.
I’ll protect post-9/11 and Forever GI Bill benefits, such as tuition and housing allowances, and make sure you get them on time and without interruption. We’ll strengthen the GI comparison tool to help vets choose a school and keep predatory institutions from targeting you and crackdown on fraud and keep for-profit bad actors from raiding the benefits you’ve earned.
I helped lead the effort to shut down a number of predatory institutions during our administration — we did that — like the Corinthian Colleges.
Senator Harris also helped take down one of the nation’s biggest for-profit scammers when she was a California attorney general. Your service to America is not over. We need your talent, we need your leadership, we need your experience. And I’m gonna do everything we can to continue to promote it.
Question from AMVETS: Since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, funding for veterans' mental health care has increased fourfold from $2.5 billion to $10 billion a year. Meanwhile the number of veteran suicides remains generally static, with more than 6,000 veterans taking their lives every year. Now, it is very likely suicides have increased in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and its direct and indirect effects.
What is clear, after two decades of a suicide epidemic, is that funding more of the same treatments and approaches is not the answer to resolving veteran suicide.
Organizations such as the Journal of American Medical Association recommend the development of new approaches to veterans' mental health. Many veterans have highlighted a desire for non-medicinal, non-traditional approaches to mental health, such as yoga, tai-chi, equine therapy, recreational therapy, and post traumatic-growth, which are showing great promise in helping veterans live lives worth living.
Under your administration, how will you hold the Department of Veterans Affairs accountable to find and fund new approaches to mental health care? Approaches that are results oriented and measurably lead to veterans living happier, healthier, lives of purpose and meaning. How will you ultimately measure success?
Trump: My administration has placed a greater focus on veteran suicide and mental health than any that has come before. The 20 veterans and active-duty who die by suicide each day must end.
The previous administration failed to offer veterans same-day mental health care. I created the PREVENTS task force to give me a revolutionary roadmap to end veteran suicide through a public health campaign, research transformation, and partnerships and grants.
We are working every day to address this problem by reaching out, breaking through barriers in data sharing for research, and partnering with civil society and faith-based groups to reach veterans where they are.
The Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act strengthens VA suicide prevention services, offers grants to civil society groups providing suicide prevention services, and supports pilot programs to find innovative ways to stop suicide. That’s why I’ve supported it from the beginning with our Veteran Service Organization allies. The Democrats have finally stopped blocking it in the House and I look forward to signing it any day now.
Biden: Today more veterans are dying by suicide each year than servicemembers have been killed on the battlefield in the last 18 years. It’s a tragedy.
So my metric for measuring success is simple. How many people are we losing? You shouldn’t be losing these people. Everyone needs to know it’s okay to ask for help, especially our servicemembers and veterans who were taught to “be tough, stand straight, don’t ask for anything.”
You’re more accustomed to being the ones being asked to do something than asking for help yourselves. We’ve got to work on that. I’ll make veterans mental health and mental care a top priority.
During the Obama-Biden administration, we boosted funding for this purpose by 76 percent. As president, I’m going to build on that progress, focus on ending suicide. And we’ll treat the whole veteran — with mental health care, economic support, and community connections.
We’ll fully fund research and suicide prevention offices at DoD and the VA; train every VA-funded provider to spot warning signs and manage the risks; address underlying factors from PTSD to TBI to harassment, discrimination, sexual assault, to food insecurity, housing instability, job loss.
We have to make sure there’s no wait times. None at all. If a veteran calls a crisis hotline and seeks help, they’re going to get it immediately. That means making sure we’ve got the right systems in place, with enough trained staff ready to respond, and the community care partners recognizing the warning signs.
Question from Veterans of Foreign Wars: Veterans of all generations have suffered the effects of toxic exposure during their service, both at home and abroad. Stateside service members have been affected by contaminated drinking water, exposure to substances such as chemical firefighting foam, and have lived in substandard housing, causing ailments affecting service members and their families.
Our deployed service members have been exposed to numerous toxic exposures such as Agent Orange, depleted uranium and open-air burn pits. What will your administration do to make sure that the men and women who served this country are given the appropriate care and benefits they deserve due to toxic exposures experienced throughout their service?
Trump: My administration is committed to providing for veterans who have been injured while serving our nation overseas, and is continuing to actively evaluate toxic exposure presumptions and legislation related to them, always guided by the science and the best interest of the veteran.
I encourage any veteran who believes military service has negatively impacted their health to submit a claim. Presumptions are not required to gain benefits. Additionally, because we recognize that environmental exposures during deployment may be associated with both immediate and delayed adverse health consequences there is no time limit for submitting such claims.
We will be there for veterans whose health has been negatively impacted by their service to our great country.
Biden: No one wants to get to the bottom of the burn pits question more than I do. My son served a year in Iraq on bases with big burn pits. Six years later, he died from brain cancer.
We know things burned in those pits released toxic fumes. We need more research to prove direct cause and effect. We can’t ask these vets to wait while we prove that link. We have to care for them now, just as we did first responders after 9/11 in New York.
As president, I’m going to make sure first that we treat certain diseases as presumptive service connected, so vets get VA benefits as fast as they can possibly get them to help them; boost enrollment in the burn pit registry and create a new toxic exposure registry to better gauge the scope of the crisis; expand VA enhanced eligibility from five to 10 years after leaving service, giving anyone exposure to toxic substances more time to seek care.
I’ll launch an epidemiological study of post-9/11 veterans exposed to blast toxins, toxic substances and burn pits. As I said, we not only did that with Agent Orange, but we waited much too long. We can’t make that same mistake again.
Question from Vietnam Veterans of America: The issue of Agent Orange and other defoliants was apparent to the Vietnam veteran’s community by the late 1970s. However, for years DoD and VA maintained that the herbicides were harmless to humans.
Over the past four decades, both Democratic and Republican administrations have failed to accept valid evidence that veterans, or children or grandchildren have become ill due to herbicides, such as Agent Orange, and other toxic substances. For example, findings in 2016 by the National Academy of Medicine reported that four presumptive conditions be added to the Agent Orange list, VA instead called for additional studies, delaying benefits for thousands of aging Vietnam veterans and their families.
Will you commit to working with Congress and VSOs to resolve all outstanding Agent Orange issues and put into place a permanent framework that subsequent generations of veterans have timely access to all their earned benefits?
Trump: My administration has overseen historic expansions of Agent Orange benefits through the Blue Water Navy implementation and paid out more than $600 million for these survivors in just the last year alone.
VA created a BWN Program Implementation Office that conducted unprecedented outreach and even worked with the National Archives to upload millions of pages of decklogs to determine who would have been in the covered waters for purposes of benefits.
From January to the end of August, VA has received a total of 66,853 Blue Water Navy claims, VA has completed 31,774 claims, and 71 percent of completed claims have resulted in a grant of benefits. As of the end of August 2020, VA has paid retroactive compensation and survivor benefit payments in the amount of $629 million.
We will continue to evaluate and support all legislation attempting to address Agent Orange concerns, a critical issue for our beloved veterans.
Biden: Every veteran deserves access to benefits and services they’ve earned. We left our Vietnam vets out who’ve been exposed to Agent Orange waiting for much too long to get the help they needed.
I was one of the earliest supporters and co-sponsored legislation way back in the 1990s, fighting alongside them as a senator, to make sure that everyone exposed to Agent Orange or other toxins could access the care and benefits they deserve. During the Obama-Biden administration, I was proud to finally be able to deliver expanding benefits for Agent Orange-related conditions.
As president I’m gonna continue that work and expand the presumptive condition list to include bladder cancer, Parkinson-like conditions, and hyperthyroidism, as recommended by the National Academy of Medicine, conducting a study on the effects of Agent Orange on the descendants of exposed veterans. We have to right this wrong and make sure nothing like this ever happens again.
Question from Disabled American Veterans: Thirty years ago, when former DAV National Commander Dave Riley was in the Coast Guard, a deadly water-borne virus almost killed him, and did take both his arms and legs. Since then, his wife, Yvonne, has been by his side, providing the love and support he needed to recover and build a life with her.
A decade ago, Congress created the Caregiver Assistance Program to support family caregivers of severely disabled veterans. However, the program only covered caregivers of veterans injured on or after Sept. 11, 2001, leaving Yvonne and thousands of others out in the cold. Two years ago, a new law was passed to extend the caregiver program to veterans of all eras, but the first phase of that expansion has been delayed due to IT failures.
As president, what will you do to ensure that all caregivers of severely disabled veterans get the support they deserve, and specifically, will you commit to completing both phases of the caregiver expansion no later than next year?
Trump: I signed the MISSION Act into law to ensure expanded support for the caregiver families who serve our severely disabled heroes day in and day out. This expansion has led to major technological improvements at VA and those systems were certified on Oct. 1. We will be covering the caregivers of our aging veterans first, those impacted before 1975, and then will turn our focus to the caregivers for our younger veterans.
This expansion will occur as quickly as possible in accordance with the law and regulations. We stand shoulder to shoulder with those who support and care for our great American heroes.
Biden: Commander Riley, so good to hear from you again. You are a real hero. But Yvonne is the absolute saint and heroine.
You know, it takes enormous courage, love, and sacrifice to do what Yvonne and caregivers like her do. And I’ve seen it up close. Some of the most meaningful moments for Jill and me have been hosting Thanksgiving meals for wounded warriors at our home, and spending time almost every Christmas Day with patients and families at Walter Reed.
Our wounded warriors and our caregivers are the absolute best of our country and deserve the best from our country in return. The delay you’re talking about isn’t just an IT failure — it’s a failure of leadership. We need leadership in place who can drive and complete the expansion of the caregiver assistance program as fast as possible. We will do that.
Right now, through the VA caregiver program, you get education benefits, mental health benefits, and stipends when traveling for your vets care. That’s not enough. Our caregivers will do anything to support their families, their vets. Many sacrifice their own careers, their own health, and more, without complaint.
That’s why I’m proposing we add another $5,000 caregiver tax credit for all the informal caregivers that help keep our community strong. And we’ll do more to make it life a little easier for them by expanding access to respite care. That will pay for someone else to come in and care for you, Dave, when Yvonne might need to run out to do errands, or just take a break.
My administration will be as committed to caregivers as they are to you. I promise you that.
VA specialty care
Question from Paralyzed Veterans of America: One of the unique characteristics of the VA health care system is the specialized systems of care that support veteran with catastrophic disabilities. These systems focus on veterans with disabilities such as spinal cord injury and disease, blindness, and polytrauma, among others.
What do you think is the nation’s obligation to veterans who have catastrophic disabilities that they acquired either while serving in the military or following their military service to ensure that they are able to live full, independent lives with their families in their communities?
Trump: Our debt to those who have made those great sacrifices for our nation must be honored. That’s why my administration has worked so hard to help severely disabled veterans. We will continue to maintain VA as a place for world-class polytrauma treatment so our vets always have a place to turn.
The MISSION Act has enabled severely disabled veterans to receive care in their best interest. Veterans like Brian McGuire, who was severely injured in Afghanistan in 2010 and lost both legs. Under the previous administration, Brian suffered numerous setbacks in his recovery. Brian was repeatedly denied additional prosthetic limbs as he was told that his one pair was more than sufficient and when he pushed back, VA prosthetics told him to wear a Fitbit on his legs to prove he was as mobile as he claimed to be.
Additionally, he was denied liners and sleeves for his prosthetics which resulted in skin breakdowns and other secondary issues. Brian visited the White House in 2017 to meet with my team and share his VA experience. Within one week, Brian had orders for new limbs and the necessary supplies for his prosthetics.
I’ve also worked to help severely disabled vets live their lives more easily and economically. I made student loan discharge automatic for severely disabled veterans. Now, totally and permanently disabled veterans will automatically get a discharge of their federal student loans — unless they opt-out of the process.
I just signed a bill in August to allow severely disabled veterans to modify their homes to make their lives easier. The Ryan Kules and Paul Benne Specially Adaptive Housing Improvement Act increased the cap on grants awarded to some veterans to purchase or adapt their homes and will let them apply for the funding up to six times.
The bill also quadruples the number of grants available each year from the Department of Veterans Affairs, from 30 to 120, and adds legally blind veterans to the list of former service members eligible to apply. Under the legislation, the total amount an eligible veteran could access would be $98,492, an increase of nearly $13,000, to go to the purchase of a house with special features.
Biden: Since I became vice president, I carry my schedule card with me every single day. It lists the number of American heroes killed or wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq. As of this time (editor’s note: the video was recorded in mid-September 2020), 6,922 have died, 53,188 have been wounded. Not over 6,000 or over 53,000, because every one of these heroes left behind a family, loved ones, a community.
While enormous medical advances have saved so many lives, they’ve also left many with catastrophic disabilities. We’ve seen more traumatic brain injury and amputees in today’s wars than ever before, on a percentage basis. I’ve visited major trauma hospitals in Afghanistan, in Iraq, Walter Reed, Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas.
The bravery and dignity with which so many of these troops face their injuries — I asked “what can I do for you, soldier, sailor, Marine.” You know what they almost all say to me? “Can you just get me back to my unit? Can you get me back to my unit?” — it’s incredible.
As president, I’ll fight like hell every day to honor your courage and your service, and make sure VA delivers timely veteran-centered, high-value care, regardless of your medical need or disability. I’ll work more closely with the caregivers to make sure they’re fully integrated as essential members of your care team. We’ll get you the most up-to-date prosthesis, treatments, and technologies as soon as they’re made available, so you can live independently as part of the communities you gave so much to defend.
You deserve a commander in chief who respects your service, honors your sacrifice, and will never betray the values you defended, will never try to keep you from participating in parades or hide you away. We should show you off, you are America.
Of all the intolerable things President Trump has done, the absolute betrayal and denigration of our troops, our veterans, your families, that’s at the top of the list. No commander in chief has ever done this before.
MISSION Act expansion
Question from The Independence Fund: The MISSION Act fundamentally transformed the delivery of VA health care, setting in law clear criteria for veterans' access to private sector care through the community care program. Veterans and caregivers that we are so blessed to serve at The Independence Fund rave about improved access to community care, how much easier the process is, and it’s especially true in underserved areas.
In your administration, how would you improve access to community care? For example, the original proposed community care regulation was to shorten the time from 20 days to 14 days, but the final regulation decided to keep it at 20 days. Would you implement a 14-day standard to expand access to community care?
Trump: I am incredibly proud of increasing veteran’s choice in my administration. I signed the MISSION Act into law in 2018, giving veterans permanent, real choice over their health care decisions. Now veterans have the choice to see non-VA doctors whenever it’s in their best medical interest, unlike under the prior administration.
More than one year after the rollout of the MISSION Act’s community care provisions, VA had referred more than 2.5 million veterans to community providers for over 7 million referrals. We also created a new urgent care benefit that gives veterans easy, local access to medical services for things like a sore throat or a sprained ankle.
More than 395,000 urgent care visits have been completed since June 6, 2019, and it’s only getting more popular with veterans. In August, VA saw more than 7,000 urgent care visits each week, thanks to the 8,100 local urgent care providers that have partnered with VA.
We will do whatever we can to continue to make care more timely, such as shortening the time in future community care regulations.
Despite predictions of the opponents of the MISSION Act, these new choices for veterans have only improved VA internal services. VA completed a record 59.9 million appointments last year, and over 90 percent would recommend VA care to fellow veterans.
Biden: The short answer is that care should be provided based on medical need.
You know, at the end of the Obama-Biden administration, every VA medical center provided same-day primary and mental health care for walk-ins. But not every veteran lives near a VA facility. That’s why in our administration, we fought to pass the “Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act,” giving millions the option of seeking care closer to home.
Today, Donald Trump runs around saying he passed “Choice.” It’s a lie that CNN says was told 150 times. But you all know the truth. It was John McCain who got that bill through the Congress, and Barack Obama who signed it into law in 2014.
When it comes to the Mission Act, President Trump has so far failed to deliver on his promise, with an initial network of community care providers that was much too small to meet the demand.
As president, I’m going to make sure veterans have better care, better outcomes, and better experiences. Community care providers are essential for that. We’re also going to work to reduce the wait times and make sure community care centers better serve veterans' unique needs by expanding medical training, and medical schools in underserved and underserved areas, for example, in Montana. We’re gonna provide training and standardization care guidance for community care providers.
And we’re going to keep insisting on improving VA services and insisting community care keeps up with the quality, or that the patients are referred back to the VA for treatment.
Bottom line, I demand the best care for our veterans. It should be world class, reliably accessible, designed to meet the unique needs and I won’t rest until every veteran has that available to them.
Question from IAVA: Sexual harassment and sexual assault are pervasive throughout the military and the veteran community. One in four women in the military have experienced military sexual trauma. Three out of four veterans who experienced military sexual trauma faced retaliation after reporting the crime to their command. Additionally, one in four women veterans report experiencing sexual harassment at the VA. Fixing this broken system will require a variety of solutions and cultural changes.
What is your position on legislation like the Military Justice Improvement Act (S. 1789), which would take sexual assault cases out of the hands of the servicemember’s chain-of-command and give it to independent, trained, and professional military prosecutors and 2) and the Deborah Sampson Act (H.R. 2234), which calls for a comprehensive policy to end harassment and sexual assault and would strengthen reporting procedures within VA.
Do you support either of these bills, and what other ideas do you have to make the military and VA safer and more accommodating to the needs of women?
Trump: This year, a senior advisor for assault and harassment prevention was appointed, and new programs were implemented showing the VA’s commitment to preventing sexual assault and harassment. This includes the following:
• Stand Up And Stop Harassment Now! Declaration: Last fall, VHA released a “Stand Up to Stop Harassment Now” declaration outlining VHA’s commitment to a harassment-free environment for everyone. This campaign includes leadership activities at VA medical centers and increased training for staff to ensure they are aware of inappropriate behavior and have the tools to stop it, report it and prevent it. It also includes educational tools for veterans and visitors on how to treat women with respect in our facilities.
• VHA Bystander Intervention Training: One important area of focus is bystander training. A contract was awarded on July 1, 2020, for Bystander Intervention Training to provide staff with tools to encourage and develop greater bystander involvement to prevent harassment and assault. This virtual training will be available at all VHA facilities beginning in September 2020.
• Sexual Assault Accountability and Investigation Task Force: At the request of Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) during the Senate Armed Service Committee hearing on March 14, 2019, Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan pledged to form a team of experts to take a fresh look at specific issues involving sexual assault, with a focus on the investigative and accountability process.
Biden: Sexual assault in the ranks is a crisis, and we need to take it on — acknowledge it. It goes against everything the military prides itself on. It corrodes unit trust, endangering everybody.
Reports of sexual assault have soared under President Trump. If I’m president, ending that scourge is going to be a priority directly from the commander in chief. We’ll have leadership and accountability at every level.
Fighting to change the culture that turns a blind eye to sexual assault has been the work of my life. As the United States senator, I fought for years to write, and then ultimately get passed and reauthorized, the Violence Against Women Act. As vice president, I supported the creation of a special victims counsel in the military, guaranteeing access to confidential legal support.
As president, I’ll build on that work, immediately appointing a commission of military leaders, survivors, advocates and experts to give me, in 90 days, recommendations as to what else we should be doing. All options have to be on the table, including those laid out in the Military Justice Improvement Act for how those cases should be reported and prosecuted.
I support the Deborah Sampson Act, which works to end harassment and sexual assault, and strengthen VA reporting procedures. It’s an important step toward women veterans feeling safe and making sure that their privacy is respected when they seek VA care.
To that end, we’ll make sure every VA Medical Center has enough full-time women’s primary care physicians, and that every community care center trains staff to care for women veterans too. We’re going to help provide childcare at every VA medical center, so women vets can make their appointments without worrying about their kids.
Nothing, nothing should keep women veterans from the high quality, specialized care and support they’ve earned and, I might add, they need.
Question from Minority Veterans of America: Support of our veterans has been a primary tenet of our nation since our country’s inception. Historically, the department has employed cultures, practices, and policies that are generally inhospitable to veterans of color, women, LGBTQ, and religious and non-religious minorities. The most apparent examples of this can be seen in the VA’s current exclusionary motto, the rates of sexual harassment and assault among minority veterans and VA employees at VA facilities, and exclusionary policies that have only recently been changed.
Taken together, these and other issues have led to disparate life and health outcomes for the minority veteran community systemically. How do you plan to reconstruct the Department of Veterans Affairs to ensure it no longer serves non-marginalized veterans at the expense of minority veterans?
Trump: All veterans, no matter their race, creed, or background, stood up for our great flag and served our nation and they will be treated fairly with high quality, timely care at VA and in the community. That’s why veteran trust overall has skyrocketed under my administration.
Veterans' trust in the VA has reached a record high even during this national emergency. In the second quarter of 2020, overall veteran trust in the entire VA system rose to 80 percent, an all-time high and up 19 percentage points from when I took office. Veterans' trust in the VA’s outpatient services stands at an all-time high of 89 percent.
I opened up the WH Hotline to make sure that veterans who feel are not being treated fairly have somewhere to reach out. The 24/7 service is principally staffed by veterans and family members and has fielded more than 501,000 calls and emails with an average time to answer of 16 seconds.
I have demanded accountability, so if any VA workers are not treating anyone fairly, they will not be with the VA for long. I signed the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017, and VA has finally instituted the culture of accountability that Congress, veterans service organizations and the president have been demanding. Since my inauguration, VA has fired more than 11,300 workers for cause.
Biden: Our sacred obligation to protect our troops includes every single service member, no matter their race, religion, sexual orientation or their gender identity. VA care and support should affirm veterans dignity.
It means we have to be more mindful about everything we do, down to the reading materials and TV shows and the waiting rooms, and or the posters on the walls. As President, I’ll make sure we finally and fully confront the systemic inequities that still pervade our society including at the VA.
That means providing cultural awareness training for all VA employees, and cultural competency protocols for all VA health care providers; expanding the mandate of the VA Center of Minority Veterans to include LGBTQ veterans; expanding VA’s “end harassment” campaign to include LGBTQ and other minority vets; boosting funding for the Vets Office of Health Equity, to measure, spot, and eliminate inequities in health outcomes, like those we see in the COVID crisis right now in the public domain.
American history isn’t a fairy tale. We’ve never lived up to our founding promise of equality for all. But we’ve never walked away from it. We’ve never stopped trying. You literally put your lives on the line for us, for all those ideals. It’s our duty to make sure the VA honors them for everybody, for all of you.
TRICARE and VA resources
Question from Military Officers Association of America: Our nation owes a debt to all the men and women who serve, or have ever served, in uniform. Those currently serving, or retired from their service, find their healthcare in the DoD system which includes Tricare. Those who formerly served, but did not earn retirement benefits in the military, may be eligible for health care from the VA, which provides comprehensive medical care to over 9 million enrolled veterans.
In recent years, Congress has wrestled with how to fully fund both of these health care systems for all those who served, particularly as health costs are rising and federal budget deficits continue growing. As president, how would you ensure that men and women who served have access to high-quality, timely health care, and what are your priorities when it comes to resourcing service-earned healthcare?
Trump: As president, I have funded both DoD and VA at the highest levels of any administration so they can provide for our active duty heroes and veterans. The fiscal year 2021 President’s Budget Request for VA is the largest in history, and VA currently has more than 397,000 total onboard employees — a record high and 50,000+ more than we had five years ago.
We have spent $2.5 trillion to rebuild the military, including $738 billion this year. We will ensure military health care remains the best available to serve our active duty troops. My resource priorities are clear from these budgets: Veterans and the military will have the best healthcare in the world.
Biden: As president I’ll make sure that every veteran and every American gets the care they need, especially during this pandemic. For our vets, it means restoring world-class care across the VA — slashing wait times, boosting telehealth, and making sure VA care sets the example of high quality, specialized care for the private sector as well.
Giving VA leadership the resources it needs to keep innovating and improving patient care, especially in areas of pain, polytrauma recovery, substance abuse disorders, PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and behavioral health; making sure Tricare and VA work together seamlessly. If military retirees choose to get care through the VA, it will be top-notch, timely, reliable, and centered around their individual needs.
More broadly, I’ll protect and build on the Affordable Care Act with a public option for every American, not seek to rip people’s health care coverage away, especially during this pandemic as the president is trying to do right now.
My plan will lower premiums, deductibles, and drug cost; double funding for community health care centers on the front lines of care; automatically enroll 4 million low-income Americans in a public option where people who live in Republican-based states that have already rejected Medicare expansion will get that coverage automatically.
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.