11/14/2011 11:36 am ET Updated Jan 14, 2012

Romney Clueless on Veterans

Just before the weekend, Mitt Romney held a Veterans Day event in South Carolina. A nice photo op, for sure. Yet, it wasn't the pictures, but his words, that made news. At this event, ostensibly to show support for veterans, Mitt Romney told them that as President he'd be open to tossing them into the private care system, from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

He said:

"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?"

What's so interesting about this is that it's not an official policy statement. In fact, Romney hasn't issued any policies on VA care. It would be one thing if he did, and you could chalk the position up to him kowtowing to the conservative GOP base, which seems to think anything with government involvement is evil. You could say, well, maybe he doesn't really believe it, like when he flip-flopped his position on a woman's right to choose. But, this was a stream of consciousness, and tells us that when it comes to veterans, Mitt Romney is absolutely clueless.

Could he learn and be coached? Maybe. But I wouldn't hope too much for that. Not when his chief veterans advisor is Jim Nicholson -- the same man who, as Secretary of the VA, requested billions of dollars less than the VA needed, and then had to run to Congress to beg for emergency funding to keep the doors open, because of his blundering as head of the department.

Back to Romney's statement, though. There's a reason that before President Obama's health care plan that insurance companies would deny people with preexisting conditions. And there's a reason why no private health care company chooses to only cover the sick. It's a losing proposition, financially. Care for the sick is incredibly expensive. When it comes to the Department of Veterans Affairs, you're talking about a patient-base that is almost completely made up of those with preexisting conditions -- wounds and injuries sustained in war.

For Romney to even hint that private companies would care for veterans at the same cost the government does is insanity. A voucher would be absolutely worthless in the private market. And there aren't going to be private companies falling all over themselves to care for incredibly expensive wounds, like for Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI). So market competition driving down costs is out the window.

So what would the result be? Likely what we see with many voucher systems -- a total breakdown of the public system, and wide inequities in the quality of care. A slippery slope towards complete privatization of the program. Veterans struggling to find care within a profit-based system. America's promise to provide quality care to every single veteran would be broken. Thanks, President Romney.

Now, none of this is to say that veterans care is perfect. It's not. There are always areas to improve upon. A recent Pew study found that half of injured veterans say that they think the government isn't "giving you all the help you think it should." I would have to agree -- we're not doing enough for veterans. But, take these numbers within the context of how veterans actually rate the VA care that they do get. According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, veterans rate the actual care at the VA at 85 and 82 out of 100 for inpatient and outpatient care, respectively. In contrast, private care rates in the 60s and 70s, for customer satisfaction.

So, the bottom line is that veterans like the care at the VA when they can get it -- much better than civilians like their private care. But, they are clearly frustrated by the wait, and ease of access. That's not surprising, considering hundreds of thousands of veterans have flooded the system because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The clear answer, then, is to provide more VA care by expanding funds to take care of increased demand -- not privatize the system.

That the latter seems to be Romney's preference tells me just how little he understands about veterans care, and how his naiveté is just flat out dangerous for veterans. But don't take it from me. Here's the reaction of Auston Thompson -- one of the veterans at the Romney event:

"Eventually it would become too much of a nuisance," Thompson said. He doubted a voucher system would cover the benefits like the existing VA system does. "Private health care is already so expensive, you'd need some kind of health care reform to make it work."