WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Tim Walz is expecting to be named Wednesday as the highest ranking Democrat on the Veterans Affairs Committee, a spot that could pit him against the incoming president and reigning House Republicans, who have been broadly critical of civil service unions and public medical care for veterans.
Walz, who has represented southern Minnesota for more than a decade and is the highest-ranking enlisted soldier ever to serve in Congress, said he’s optimistic that he and colleagues can avoid partisanship while improving care for veterans.
He called the debate over private vs. public care for veterans a “false choice” and said he believes in improving the current hybrid approach to care.
The Department of Veterans Affairs reports that almost 20 percent of its health care costs last year came from the private sector — about $25 million.
“There’s a group of people who say government can’t do anything right,” Walz said in an interview. “I think my job is to bring people together to actually solve the problem. … I believe in a joint American idea on fulfilling our commitment to veterans.”
The agency has been under fire in recent years for failing to competently keep up with steep health care demands, particularly among younger veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Wait times in clinics across the country spiked; in some places, officials lied or falsified paperwork to hide those wait times. In 2014, President Obama’s VA secretary resigned amid reports of widespread coverups and corruption.
Walz said that over his first six months to a year in the new role, he’ll be focused on the expected GOP challenges to public sector unions representing VA workers, and a corresponding effort to shift more veteran care to the private sector.
He described the committee’s Republican chairman, Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee, as a friend — but said that won’t stop him from fighting for workers to have collective bargaining and due process rights.
Most of the people involved in what Walz called the high-profile, “headline-grabbing” problems have been VA managers, he said.
“No one is talking about how can we hire people faster. There is a shortage of people,” Walz said. “You can’t fire your way to a better VA.”
Benjamin Krause, a veterans advocate attorney and a Twin Cities blogger, has pushed for the further privatization of the VA medical system.
“Why not give veterans the choice?” Krause said. “All should have the opportunity to go elsewhere. One would hope that most of the veterans would continue there, but if they all leave the facility, that’s a sign that there is probably a bigger problem going on that the VA hasn’t acknowledged.”
President-elect Donald Trump has not yet named his pick for VA secretary, even as confirmation hearings are now underway on Capitol Hill for other Cabinet picks. Trump reportedly was interested in Dr. Delos Cosgrove, president of the Cleveland Clinic, but Cosgrove said he wasn’t interested. Some veterans organizations have urged Trump to keep current Secretary Robert McDonald — a Republican whom Obama appointed in 2014.
Walz said he’d be a fan of that choice. Walz enlisted in the Army National Guard at age 17 and retired 24 years later as a command sergeant major.
Veterans backed Trump
Veterans supported Trump by a 2-1 margin, even though many of their prominent advocacy organizations — the American Legion and Disabled American Veterans among them — are skeptical of further privatization of veterans’ health care.
An ardent Hillary Clinton supporter, Walz said Trump won support from veterans by constantly talking on the campaign trail about their plight.
“I don’t have to understand that to respect it,” Walz said, noting he wishes in hindsight that Clinton had talked about veterans more during stump speeches.
Still, he said, “I think there are real reasons to be optimistic.”