Romney eyes vouchers for veterans

Mitt Romney spent part of his Veterans’ Day in Maudlin, South Carolina, visiting with a dozen vets, and wandering into some dangerous policy waters.

Talking with the veterans about the challenge of navigating the Veterans Affairs bureaucracy to get their health care benefits after they leave active duty, Romney suggested a way to improve the system would be to privatize it.

“Sometimes you wonder, would there be some way to introduce some private sector competition, somebody else that could come in and say, you know each soldier gets X thousand dollars attributed to them and then they can choose whether they want to go on the government system or the private system and then it follows them, like what happens with schools in Florida where they have a voucher that follows them, who knows.”

Even the most conservative Republicans rarely venture into privatizing veterans’ health care benefits. Last year, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Colorado went there, but it was problematic enough that his campaign quickly walked it back.

And I wouldn’t be too surprised if Romney’s team does the same today.

In the meantime, Romney’s willingness to voucherize veterans’ care should be a pretty big deal. For the Washington Monthly, this has been a long-time area of interest — in 2005, we published a Philip Longman piece on V.A. hospitals called, “The Best Care Anywhere.”

As Longman explained at the time, “Who do you think receives higher-quality health care. Medicare patients who are free to pick their own doctors and specialists? Or aging veterans stuck in those presumably filthy VA hospitals with their antiquated equipment, uncaring administrators, and incompetent staff? An answer came in 2003, when the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine published a study that compared veterans health facilities on 11 measures of quality with fee-for-service Medicare. On all 11 measures, the quality of care in veterans facilities proved to be ‘significantly better.’ … The Annals of Internal Medicine recently published a study that compared veterans health facilities with commercial managed-care systems in their treatment of diabetes patients. In seven out of seven measures of quality, the VA provided better care.”

Yes, the taxpayer-financed, government-run V.A. hospitals are some of the finest medical facilities in the country. That is, by the way, as it should be — men and women in uniform put their lives on the line for us, and providing them with world-class medical care and facilities is the least the country can do in return. In this case, it just so happens that world-class care comes in government-run facilities.

Romney, the Republican frontrunner, prefers to change this, and would apparently rather hand vets a voucher. Perhaps the inexperienced former one-term governor with no background on military policy hasn’t fully thought this through. For him to go this far on Veterans’ Day, of all days, seems remarkably tone deaf, even for him.

Update: A spokesperson for Veterans Of Foreign Wars made clear this afternoon, after being asked about Romney’s comments, “The VFW doesn’t support privatization of veterans health care.”