Has Dr. Ben Finally Stepped In It?

In my TPMCafe column on Ben Carson earlier this week, I noted that he had been pretty vague on a lot of issues even as he had wrapped his extremist philosophy in dog whistles. That’s quite the successful formula, for a while at least, for a stealth wingnut with a powerful biography and a charming manner.

Could be, though, he’s just stepped in a great big cow patty, per Military Times‘ Leo Shane III:

Presidential hopeful Ben Carson’s comments suggesting the Veterans Affairs Department should be eliminated drew quick condemnation from multiple veterans groups, who called the idea short-sighted and ill-informed.

On a national radio show Thursday, Carson said that the country need to re-examine how it cares for veterans but also how to cut back on government bureaucracy.

“There is a lot of stuff we’re doing that doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “We don’t need a Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans Affairs should be folded in under the Department of Defense.”

Carson said he wants to provide all veterans with health savings accounts to pay for private-sector medical care and reserve defense-run veterans clinics for highly specialized care, like traumatic brain injury treatment and limb replacements.

Ah, yes, the HSA pet rock. But it’s not a welcome idea to the quite conservative VFW:

“To suggest that disabled veterans could be sent out into the economy with a health savings account card overlooks the fact that civilian health care has waiting lists of their own … and presupposes that civilian doctors have the same skill sets as VA doctors, who see veterans of every age and malady every day,” VFW National Commander John Biedrzyck said in a statement.

“(VA) provides an irreplaceable service to the nation’s wounded, ill and injured veterans, and my organization will not let any candidate for any office suggest anything otherwise.”

Them’s fighting words, and other vet groups seem even less pleased:

In a lengthy online essay, Paralyzed Veterans of America Deputy Executive Director Sherman Gillums Jr. called the plan “a misguided notion born from ignorance of what each department does.”

“Those who insist ‘we don’t need a Department of Veterans Affairs’ are likely people who in fact do not need VA care because of good health or cannot access VA care due to ineligibility, as is the case with Dr. Carson,” he wrote.

“However, frustration in reaction to problems in VA combined with ignorance about what VA does and how it works are not the ingredients for a recipe of success where fixing the department is concerned.”

And here’s the thing: this involves the one issue area where Carson can’t say he’s still playing catch-up because he’s been off saving lives for decades. As a physician, health care policy is the one thing he definitely will be expected to “get.”

Politics aside, abolishing the VA health system to shunt veterans (or at least those not picked up by the DoD, which could create another whole set of problems) into the private system is pretty close to the opposite of what we should be doing. As WaMo’s own Phil Longman explained back in 2007, we ought to be making the rest of the health care system more like the VA. No, it’s not perfect; the eligibility system has problems, as well all know; but the actual care it provides at a limited cost remains the best available in the country. And Ben Carson ought to realize that.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.