Jim Cole / AP
Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015 | 12:09 p.m.
On the eve of Veterans Day, Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rolled out a proposal to improve the care of veterans and increase access to services at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Clinton’s plan rejects wholesale privatization of the VA health care system — which some Republicans lawmakers support — while allowing a modicum of private-sector involvement in certain circumstances, such as specialized surgical procedures, mental health care and substance abuse treatment. In the proposal, the secretary said she would make changes to management within the beleaguered VA, which has faced criticism for long wait times, sub-par quality of care and a backlog of unprocessed claims.
That backlog has long troubled Nevada veterans. The Reno regional office of the VA was ranked the fifth worst in the nation in processing benefits claims. “We have been part of the super backlog. I’ve complained about the Reno office consistently.” said Rep. Dina Titus. “If you could reduce that backlog, that would be very important for our veterans.”
The secretary’s plan also calls for an end to the “epidemic” of veteran suicides, supporting increases in funding for mental health services, an expansion of mental health programs and better treatment practices, including alternative pain management. Nevada has one of the highest rates of veteran suicide in the country, with 46 deaths per 100,000 veterans, a rate more than twice the national average.
Clinton’s plan also touched on the issues of female veterans, advocating for gender-specific health services, child care at VA facilities and zero-tolerance for military sexual assault and harassment. That’s what sets the secretary’s plan apart from the other Democratic and Republican candidates alike, said state Sen. Pat Spearman.
“Being a woman veteran, the fact that she explicitly talks about the services that women veterans have to have — there hasn’t been that type of specificity,” Spearman said. “Women veterans have, by and large, been kind of lumped in with their male counterparts.”
Spearman specifically highlighted the section of Clinton’s plan addressing military sexual assault. Spearman said that, while she served in the army she was propositioned by her senior rater — the person in charge of overseeing performance evaluations. She said he came to her hotel room where they were staying in Panama and knocked on the door, and the only way she could escape the hotel room without confronting him was by having a maid sneak her down a service elevator.
“I was terrified because I couldn’t talk to anybody. There was no place to go,” Spearman said. “So the whole military sexual trauma piece, saying you want to deal with that, takes courage.”
Last session, Spearman and Sen. Joyce Woodhouse authored a bill, passed unanimously, to have the Nevada Department of Veteran Services create new programs and services to aid veteran survivors of sexual assault.
Earlier this summer, Spearman facilitated a roundtable discussion with Clinton and Nevada veterans in Reno, where Spearman said the secretary did “very little talking and more listening.”
Building on President Barack Obama’s plan to end veteran homelessness by 2015, the secretary’s plan calls for increased funding to reduce homelessness, expand outreach and services and provide housing options suitable for homeless women veterans and homeless veteran families.
Southern Nevada recently declared that veteran homelessness had been reduced to a “functional zero,” meaning the region has enough housing and services to provide any veteran a home who wants one. Still, about 120 veterans fall into homelessness in Southern Nevada each month.
Clinton’s plan parallels those of her two opponents in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in some regards, including improving the quality of veteran health care, expanding services and supporting veteran access to higher education. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley also released a detailed plan for veterans this week, including nationalizing a system he used in Maryland to track and analyze veteran data.